“We are moving in the wrong direction, with almost 21 million more people breathing dirty air than in last year’s report,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president of national public policy for the American Lung Association.
That is bad news for people like Tim Seib, a 37-year-old New York area director who suffered from asthma for the rest of his life.
“Knowing that we have made our air worse is very annoying for me because air quality directly affects my daily health,” Seib said. “This is not like a political standpoint, this is not ideology.”
“When asthma symptoms start, you don’t know when your next full breath will come. It almost feels like you’re sinking,” Seib continued.
“I don’t think until you walk in the position of someone with breathing problems (that) you really understand how scary it is.”
50th Anniversary of the Clean Air Act
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which accuses the US Environmental Protection Agency by regulating all sources of air emissions. The aim is to reduce air pollution and acid rain, improve air quality and visibility, slow climate change and protect the ozone layer.
However, under the Trump administration, some of that protection has been canceled or unregulated. The lack of enforcement – together with worsening climate change – has led to the recent reversal of improved air quality, the report said.
“If there is no environmental police responsible, we know that pollutants will disrupt the rule of law, will cheat and will increase emissions,” Billings said. “And pollution will increase. It has increased.”
Environmental advocacy groups are just as important.
“Around the world, poisonous air kills 5 million people every year and, as explained in this report, the US still has a long way to go to better protect society.” said Sarah Vogel, vice president of health at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“Unfortunately, the Trump administration is still trying to undermine existing protection and allow even more dangerous pollution in our air,” Vogel said.
CNN reached out to EPA to comment but did not receive a response.
Increased types of pollution
The 21st annual “Air Condition” report analyzes data from 2016, 2017 and 2018 – three of the five hottest years in recorded history in the world, the report said.
The warmer temperatures contributed to rising ozone levels in many parts of the US, the report found, affecting more than 137 million people. Breathing in ozone, or smog, can cause asthma attacks, shortness of breath, and trigger coughing, the report said.
The heat from increasing climate change is also contributing to forest fires, especially in western countries, which have raised levels of particulate pollution to dangerous levels, the report said.
Particulate matter is a mixture of solid and liquid substances found in the air. Dust, dirt, and smoke particles are larger but there are also very small and inhaled particles that cannot be seen with the naked eye. It is called PM 2.5 because its size is generally 2.5 micrometers or less.
Very small. In comparison, the average human hair is 30 times larger than 2.5 PM particles. Because they are so small, these particles can enter far into our airways and wreak havoc with the function of our lungs and body.
The report found nine cities in the west reaching the worst levels of particulate pollution ever recorded: Fairbanks, Alaska; Yakima, Washington; Las Vegas, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; Spokane, Washington; and the following cities in California – Chico, Salinas, Redding and Santa Maria.
In contrast, cities with the cleanest air, are defined as no high ozone or days of high particle pollution over a three-year forest period, is Bangor, Maine; Honolulu, Hawaii; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Burlington, Vermont.
“The report found that air quality in some communities has improved, but ‘Air Condition’ found that too many people still breathe unhealthy air,” President and CEO of the American Lung Association Harold Wimmer said in a statement.
“Climate change continues to reduce air quality and increase the risk of air pollution that endangers health,” said Wimmer.
Significant health impact
Seib lives in the Harlem district of New York City, which was devastated by Covid-19. He caught a lighter form of the virus a few weeks ago, and even that was frightening to him.
“Throughout my life, my asthma symptoms worsened at night,” he said. “So Covid’s symptoms continue to increase and it’s scary to go to sleep at night without knowing whether I will wake up in the middle of an asthma attack or more compromise than me when I go to sleep.”
Knowing what it was like to struggle to breathe, Seib found it difficult to understand why any regulations to protect US air quality would be cut or loosened.
“So my message is, please try to see it through someone’s eyes, like me or God, someone who has even worse symptoms or health problems,” Seib said. “Because we don’t have many choices out there, and that is a very scary and very real thing to wake up to every day.”