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Outdoor Air Quality: Is America Suffocating Itself?

Despite the onset of spring, those runny eyes and that stuffed up nose may not be the result of seasonal allergens wafting through the air but rather caused by airborne pollutants serving to irritate tender nasal passages, throats and lungs. While some population segments, such as infants and the elderly, are more susceptible to air pollution than others, high levels of toxins in the air we breathe out-of-doors is considered to be responsible for 10,000 deaths per year in the U.S. Great strides have been realized through the 40-year-old Clean Air Act, but some American cities continue to fare far worse than others. How is the air quality where you live? Is it slowly strangling you to death?

Same as it ever was

The quality of our air is continually measured by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whose data shows consistent improvement in the measurement of airborne pollutants like carbon monoxide and lead since the Clean Air Act was instated. Recently, however, the Act has come under scrutiny for cost-effectiveness by both Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress and Republican leaders in the Senate. Its ability to police pollution-level standards for power plants and manufacturing facilities are being considered. The Obama administration has consistently talked the talk about addressing climate change, yet pro-active legislation supporting the reduction of air-borne pollutants and greenhouse gasses has not been passed by either house. Perhaps that will change, but in the meantime, science advisors for the EPA continue to stress the need for additional improvement in U.S. air quality, and if budget cuts do in fact occur, it is possible if not likely that pollution rates will climb rather than decrease, catapulting the American public’s air quality back to the bad-old days prior to the Clean Air Act’s inception.

Where you live matters

It’s a no-brainer that the largest metropolitan areas experience the worst outdoor air pollution. Despite the number of hybrid cars you might see on its traffic-clogged freeways, according to the American Lung Association, Los Angeles has the worst ozone air pollution of any U.S. city and much of the rest of California doesn’t fare well either. This doesn’t mean the rest of the country is breathing any easier; cities nationwide, including Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Knoxville and Phoenix all show high levels of outdoor pollution and poor air quality. Not surprisingly, smaller cities and those surrounded by rural areas have better air quality and measurement of ozone levels. Despite its local 3M plant employing around 400 people, Ames. Iowa has the lowest ozone level in the U.S., followed by Appleton, Wisconsin. No matter what city you call home, you may be better off than you would be in a number of other locales.

What you breathe matters

Over the course of time, breathing in polluted air can result in shortening your lifespan, particularly if the pollution level does not abate at any point during the calendar year. Other negative effects associated with high levels of outdoor air pollution include an increase in the number and severity of asthma attacks, an escalation in the premature birth rate, higher levels of heart attacks and strokes as well as a variety of respiratory issues. Based on where you live, this may be enough to catapult you into moving, but before you pack those bags, consider what proactive measures you can take to personally create cleaner air levels in your own hometown.  

What you can do

Little actions add up and can help to reduce air pollution in your area:

  • Keep your car running at optimal levels and consider driving the greenest car you are able to afford.
  • Make your home as energy-efficient as possible and reduce the amount of electricity you use.
  • Recycle, reduce waste and start a compost pile, either for your own use or for a community garden.
  • Buy less toxic cleaning products and go organic when possible.
  • Write to your representatives and tell them not to slash the Clean Air Act’s budget or ability to protect the American public.

No one action will take the place of better manufacturing standards and an across-the-board lowering of automobile emissions, but small, proactive steps can create a groundswell of health-supporting change. The Clean Air Act was originally passed as a result of increased public awareness about air pollution. If you're worried about the air you breathe, put pressure on your local representatives to escalate that effort, rather than to diminish its power or abolish it completely.

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at

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