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New report says a quarter of Americans are breathing 'unhealthy' air

First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that studies climate risk, said the number is expected to increase by 51% over the next 30 years.
New report says a quarter of Americans are breathing 'unhealthy' air
Posted at 12:46 PM, Feb 13, 2024

A new report suggests over 25% of the American population has been exposed to “unhealthy” air. 

Nearly 10 million Americans may have been exposed to “very unhealthy” levels of air quality and 1.5 million are at risk of experiencing “hazardous” air quality today, according to First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that studies climate risk. 

First Street categorized its findings based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index (AQI). The index has six levels, with the most concerning listed as “unhealthy” (everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects), “very unhealthy” (triggering a health alert that everyone may experience more serious health effects) and “hazardous” (triggering health warnings of emergency conditions in which the entire population is more likely to be affected). 

The most consistent areas of the country impacted by poor air quality are on the West Coast, where there’s been an increase of nearly two times as many poor air quality days compared to the beginning of the century, First Street said. 

Places like California’s Central Valley, the San Francisco metro area, and much of Southern California are all expected to experience poor air quality up to three months' worth of days in a bad year.  

Metro areas of Seattle and Portland are expected to see nearly two additional weeks of poor air quality, primarily due to the increasing occurrence of wildfires in the region, said First Street. 

First Street’s report is corroborated by another recent study published in The Lancet Planetary Health back in December, which found air quality in the Western U.S. deteriorated between 2000 and 2020, with an annual 55% increase in black carbon concentrations, mainly attributed to wildfires.

Last summer, more than 100 million Americans from Iowa to Maine were under air quality alerts as wildfire smoke from Canada drifted into the U.S. 

First Street said its annual air quality report highlights the alarming effects of climate change, which previous research says can lead to longer and more active wildfire seasons. 

SEE MORE: Wildfire smoke lingers in your home, new research shows

“Understanding the likelihood and persistence of poor air quality exposure is important due to the well-documented impacts on health, outdoor labor productivity, and the nuisance of smoke impacting daily routines,” said Dr. Jeremy Porter, Head of Climate Implications Research at First Street. “We are just starting to see the beginnings of the impact this hazard will have on our daily lives and the larger economy moving forward”.

First Street’s report stated over the next 30 years, the U.S. population exposed to “unhealthy” air days is expected to increase by 51%, while the population exposed to “very unhealthy” days and “hazardous” days is expected to increase by 13% and 27%, respectively.

The data used in First Street’s report cumulated from peer-reviewed research articles, linking climate change to current and future ozone levels, projecting future smoke exposure due to wildfires and combining climate-driven ozone and inhalable particles with anthropogenic pollutants into a consolidated model. 

Matthew Eby, founder and chief executive officer of First Street, said, “The major concern moving forward is that climate is much harder to regulate than industry."

Just last week the EPA said it finalized new rules to reduce the amount of air pollution new or remodeled power plants, vehicles and industrial facilities are allowed to emit.

The American Lung Association said you can reduce your exposure to unhealthy air by limiting your time outdoors, keeping the windows and doors to your home closed and using a portable HEPA air purifier. 

SEE MORE: How to further protect yourself from wildfire smoke while indoors

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