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D.C.'s "State of the Air": F
Factory in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Flickr photo by Señor Codo.

Factory in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Flickr photo by Señor Codo.

Next American City has started a series of stories on local air quality, which is an incredibly important issue. This first post analyzes this years “State of the Air” report, put out by the American Lung Association and points out some important headlines: socioeconomic status has become more associated with poor health due to air pollution and 61.7% of Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle pollution, for example.

When you dig down to the county level data, though, you see just how badly D.C. ranks on these air quality rankings. The DC metro area has the 14th worst short-term particle pollution and the 14th worst ozone pollution. Moreover, the cities above DC are the worst of the worst. Californian cities (L.A., Bakersfield, Fresno and Sacramento) rank worse than D.C. on both lists, while classic industrial cities such as Pittsburgh and Birmingham, AL rank high on the particle pollution list and sprawling car-dependent cities like Houston, Dallas and Phoenix have worse ozone pollution. On the report card section of the report, D.C. gets straight F’s.

This has very real consequences. The American Lung Association outlines the health consequences of air pollution in detail, from the estimated 18,000 annual deaths due just to particle pollution in California to increases in chest pain, shortness of breath, respiratory infection, strokes, congestive heart failure, heart attacks, and lung cancer.

The air quality-related ailment most familiar to urban residents, though, is almost certainly asthma. 10,000 of D.C.’s children, or 10.3%, have asthma. In one low-income ZIP code, 4.5% of children have had to visit the emergency department for an acute asthma attack. These numbers are far above the national average and reflect a markedly lower quality of life for residents of the district, especially those in (generally low-income) poor air quality neighborhoods.

So what is to be done? The American Lung Association recommends three major changes: cleaning up dirty power plants, the current diesel fleet, and large ocean-going boats. These should be done, and fast.

But how is it that a report which has a large, bold headline proclaiming that “ Living Near Highways May Be Especially Dangerous” might not think to a) build fewer highways or b) put fewer cars on those highways?

We always talk about how sustainable transportation will help us combat global climate change. For all those global warming skeptics, or those who acknowledge that climate change is a problem but just don’t think it’s one of those problems we need to deal with right now, building a sustainable transportation system in the name of reducing local air pollution might be the best sales pitch.

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