WEDNESDAY, April 29 (HealthDay News) -- More than half of the nation's population, 186.1 million people to be exact, live and breathe in communities with dangerously high levels of air pollution, new research shows.
"Six out of ten Americans live in areas dirty enough to send people to the emergency room, to shape how kids' lungs develop and even dirty enough to kill," Charles D. Connor, president and CEO of the American Lung Association said during a teleconference Tuesday to present the findings of the association's State of the Air 2009 report.
"Forty million Americans live in counties where the air quality has failed every single test," he continued. "Even as our nation explores the complex challenges of global warming and energy independence, we still must recognize the problems we have with old-fashioned air pollution."
Although there have been some improvements in the nation's overall air health over the past decade, those gains are leveling out, said Janice E. Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy and advocacy at the lung association.
And recent measures that are not yet having an effect (but likely will) are counterbalanced by the world's insatiable need for more electricity, she added.
"It's not nearly the direction that we need to take," Nolen said.
But there was good news for the residents of Fargo, N.D., which won the top spot as the nation's cleanest city overall -- the only one to pass the grade in all three categories of air pollution: ozone pollution, year-round particle pollution and short-term (24-hour) particle pollution.
Seventeen other cities ranked high in two of the three categories: Billings, Mont.; Bismarck, N.D.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Farmington, N.M.; Ft. Collins, Colo.; Honolulu; Lincoln, Neb.; Midland-Odessa, Texas; Port St. Lucie, Fla.; Pueblo, Colo,; Redding, Calif.; Salinas, Calif.; San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Santa Fe-Espanola, N.M.; Sioux Falls, N.D.; and Tucson, Ariz.
Los Angeles is the nation's dirtiest city, keeping the spot it has held for a decade now.
"It will likely remain on top of the most-polluted list for ozone for a long time, but they have made improvements," Nolen said.
Other dirty cities for ozone: Bakersfield, Calif.; Visalia-Porterville, Calif.; Pittsburgh-New Castle, Pa.; and Fresno-Madera, Calif.
Eighty million more Americans (175 million) than last year live in areas with unacceptably high smog (ozone) levels too many days of the year, reflecting both a warmer climate as well as new ozone standards.
"Ozone causes inflammation by burning the lining of the airways. It's like getting sunburn in your lungs," said Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the lung association. "Ozone pollution can cause premature death, shortness of breath, chest pain when inhaling, wheezing and coughing, asthma attacks, increased susceptibility to lung infection and increased need to receive medical attention for lung diseases like asthma or COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]."
Even short-term exposure to particulate pollution can be deadly, from lung disease as well as heart attacks and stroke.
New research from California has tripled the number of estimated premature deaths from particulate matter, according to the lung association.
On the other hand, Edelman added, one nationwide study found that the average life expectancy in 51 cities had increased by five months between 1980 and 2000 as a result of air pollution reductions.
To aid the cause, consumers can use less electricity, drive less, avoid burning wood or trash and push for clean-up of old diesel bus fleets in their communities, Connor suggested.
View the full report at the American Lung Association.
SOURCES: April 28, 2009 teleconference with Charles D. Connor, president and CEO, American Lung Association; Janice E. Nolen, assistant vice president, national policy and advocacy, American Lung Association; Norman H. Edelman, M.D., chief medical officer, American Lung Association; State of the Air report