How many Americans are adversely affected by air pollution?

Dear EarthTalk: How many Americans are adversely affected by air pollution and what can we do to improve air quality?

—Tom Weaver, Sioux City, IA

According to the State of the Air 2005 report, published by the American Lung Association (ALA), air pollution levels improved in many parts of the nation during the first few years of the new millennium, but millions of Americans still face dangerous levels of air pollution.

The ALA report highlights the sad fact that, despite pro-environmental sentiment and strong regulations, more than half of the U.S. population lives in counties with unsafe levels of either smog or particle pollution. Smog is the worst offender and is often directly responsible for cases of decreased lung function, respiratory infection, lung inflammation and aggravation of respiratory illness. Some 142.7 million Americans live in counties rated with failing grades by the ALA for this airborne pollutant.

Meanwhile, another 76.5 million Americans live in areas where they are exposed to unhealthy short-term levels of particle pollution. Children and the elderly are especially at risk. Short-term, or acute, exposure to particle pollution has been linked to increases in heart attacks, strokes, and emergency-room visits for asthma and cardiovascular disease. Particle pollution is most dangerous to those already suffering from asthma, heart disease, bronchitis and emphysema.

The ALA’s annual tally of America’s air pollution is based on readings from air quality monitors in every county in the nation. The organization is presently working hard to protect the Clean Air Act from the budget-cutting efforts of several key lawmakers. It is also currently engaged in a vigorous campaign to force the cleanup of the country’s dirtiest power plants. Old, coal-fired power plants are among the biggest industrial contributors to unhealthy air, especially particle pollution in the eastern United States.

Individuals can help improve air quality by cutting down on driving so as to reduce vehicle exhaust, and by refraining from burning wood or trash that sends particle pollution into the air. The ALA also suggests getting involved in community reviews of air pollution plans and supporting state and local efforts to clean up air pollution. Urging members of Congress to protect the Clean Air Act is another way for individuals to get involved.

CONTACT: American Lung Association, www.lungaction.org.