Danger in the Air: Unhealthy Levels of Air Pollution in 2003

Released by: Environment Colorado

Executive Summary

While air quality has improved in the last three decades, half of all Americans live in counties where air pollution exceeds national health standards.* Most of these places suffer from high levels of ozone and/or particle pollution. Ozone is the country's most pervasive air pollutant; particle pollution is the nation's deadliest air pollutant. Coal-fired power plants and motor vehicles are the largest sources of these pollutants. This report, which is based on a comprehensive survey of environmental agencies from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, examines levels of ozone and fine particle pollution in cities and towns across the country in 2003 and finds that air pollution continues to pose a grave health threat to Americans.

Ground-level ozone, the primary component of smog, is a severe respiratory irritant that can aggravate asthma and cause other respiratory problems, including permanent lung damage. Fine particle pollution, or "soot," can bypass the body's defenses and cause serious respiratory and cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks, lung cancer, and premature deaths.

"Danger in the Air: Unhealthy Levels of Air Pollution in 2003" is a compilation of 2003 data from the nation's network of ozone and fine particle air quality monitors, based on our comprehensive survey of state environmental agencies. Key findings include the following:

• Ozone levels in 40 states and the District of Columbia exceeded the 8-hour national health standard 4,583 times and the 1-hour health standard 684 times on 187 days in 2003. The Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, California metropolitan area was the most ozone-polluted large city; Bakersfield, California was the most ozone-polluted mid-sized city; and Merced, California was the most ozone polluted small city.

• Fine particle pollution exceeded the year-round national health standard in 20 states in 2003. Among large cities, the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, California metropolitan area was most polluted by year-round particle pollution; Dayton, Ohio was most polluted by year-round particle pollution among mid-sized cities; and the Weirton-Steubenville, West Virginia-Ohio metropolitan area was most polluted by year-round particle pollution among small cities.

• Fine particle pollution exceeded the 24-hour national health standard 106 times on 39 days in 13 states in 2003. Of large cities, the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario Metropolitan area was most polluted by spikes in particle pollution; of mid-sized cities, El Paso, Texas was most polluted by spikes in particle pollution; and of small cities, Missoula, Montana was most polluted by spikes in particle pollution.

This report also includes preliminary ozone data for 19 states and the District of Columbia for 2004, which, like 2003, has been a relatively mild and wet summer. Yet, through the beginning of September 2004, ozone levels have exceeded the 8-hour health standard 602 times and the 1-hour standard 84 times in these areas.

Until policymakers require tough cleanup standards for power plant smokestacks, Americans will continue to suffer serious health problems from ozone and fine particle pollution. Instead of taking action to solve this problem, the Bush administration is helping powerful energy companies rewrite the rules, weakening existing protections and making Americans even more vulnerable to the health effects of harmful pollutants.

Given the extent of our air pollution problem, we need much stronger, not weaker, clean air protections. The Bush administration should:

• Substantially strengthen, accelerate, and finalize its proposal to cap smog- and soot-forming pollutants from power plants in the eastern U.S. to adequately protect public health and comply with the law.

• Designate all areas where people breathe unhealthy levels of fine particles as nonattainment areas and propose and finalize a strong rule to bring these areas into compliance with the health standards by the end of this decade, as required by the Clean Air Act.

State environmental agencies and other policymakers should:

• Continue to reject the Bush administration's "Clear Skies" plan, which would replace the Clean Air Act's power plant cleanup programs with far weaker programs.

• Adopt a comprehensive program to reduce emissions of smog- and sootforming pollutants, as well as carbon dioxide and mercury, from power plants.

• Ensure that states continue to have the authority to set clean air standards that are more protective than federal standards.