Top Polluted U.S. Cities With the Worst Air

The air that most Americans breathe may not be as clean as they think -- depending on where they live, at least.

Roughly 60 percent of Americans live in areas where air pollution has reached unhealthy levels that can make people sick, suggests the 2009 State of the Air report released today by the American Lung Association.

The 2009 report was based on data collected at some 900 monitoring sites across the country during a three-year period from 2005 through 2007. Researchers measured the air quality of different areas using three criteria -- long-term particle pollution, short-term particle pollution and ozone concentration. All three forms of pollution have been shown to have negative health effects.

And according to the report, "air pollution remains widespread and dangerous" with nearly every major city burdened by some type of pollution from either ozone or particle pollution.

The rankings even included a few surprising locations that now have dirty air and were previously considered pristine.

Pittsburgh and Bakersfield, Calif., had the most particle pollution -- a mix of tiny specks of soot, dust, ash, and aerosols in the air. Meanwhile, Los Angeles topped the ozone rankings-- a dubious distinction that means that it could well be the smoggiest place in the country.

Cities and counties from coast to coast were ranked numerically based on their air pollution levels and these same communities were also graded A through F in a national air quality "report card."

The findings suggest that despite a growing "green" movement in the United States, the air you breathe can put your health at risk.

Air Not as Clean as It Seems

A lot of Americans feel comfortable about air pollution, and we often think that it's a problem in a few well-known places, said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association.

"This report suggests that some places we consider clean are not," he said.

Two locations in Utah, for example, earned listings among the top polluted cities. "Everyone assumes that Salt Lake City must be a clean place, but it's not -- it's counterintuitive," suggested Edelman.

Salt Lake City ranked sixth nationwide in a listing of cities most polluted by short-term particle pollution, and its neighbor to the north, Logan, Utah, came in at the number eight spot.

Pittsburgh topped the list of cities most polluted by short-term exposure to particles. It's still a dangerous city for particulate pollution, pointed out Edelman.

"This catches my eye because we ordinarily think they've cleaned up their act," he said.

Where Pollution Is at Its Peak

Three California spots -- Fresno, Bakersfield and Los Angeles -- ranked second, third and fourth in the nation for short-term particle pollution, while Birmingham, Ala., came in fifth.

Communities ranking high on this list have short-term spikes in particle pollution that can last anywhere from a few hours to several days. And it's these short-term spikes that increase the number of emergency room visits for asthma and other respiratory diseases, along with upping the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and early death among residents.

The sources of particle pollution can range from woodstoves and diesel trucks to coal-fired power plants and heavy highway traffic -- to name a few. And while particle pollutants come in different sizes, the ones that do the most damage are the extremely tiny ultrafine particles.

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