People across the United States are breathing increasingly polluted air, according to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report. Climate change is a major contributor to worsening air quality, and the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to roll back environmental protections could make it even worse.
The American Lung Association has been tracking air quality for two decades, and the air pollution increase found in this year’s report is worse than the past two reports, which examined air quality dating back to 2013. This runs counter to repeated claims made by President Donald Trump in which he’s stated, “I want crystal-clean air,” and asserted that the U.S. has “record clean” air.
Between 2015 and 2017, more than 141 million people — one in four Americans — were exposed to dangerous particle pollution and unhealthy ozone levels, also known as soot and smog. This represents an increase of 7.2 million more people compared to last year’s report.
“In many areas of the United States, the air quality is worsening, at least in part because of wildfires and weather patterns fueled by climate change,” Harold Wimmer, president and chief executive of the American Lung Association, said in a statement.
“This increase in unhealthy air is eye-opening, and points to the reality that the nation must do more to protect the public from serious, even life-threatening harm,” Wimmer continued. “There is no clearer sign that we are facing new challenges than air pollution levels that have broken records tracked for the past twenty years, and the fact that we had more days than ever before when monitored air quality reached hazardous levels for anyone to breathe.”
Smog has worsened with climate change, the report notes. All three years examined in this report were the warmest years ever recorded, and as temperatures increase, ozone pollution forms more easily and is harder to clear away. Described by the American Lung Association as “essentially causing a sunburn of the lungs,” health impacts include shortness of breath, coughing, and asthma attacks.
Particle pollution is often the result of burning coal, and when the microscopic particles are lodged deep in the lungs, they can enter the bloodstream and cause health impacts such as heart attack, stroke, and cancer. According to the report, more cities are experiencing days with short-term spikes in this type of pollution.
Of the 25 most polluted cities identified by the American Lung Association, eight have now reached their highest number of days with these short spikes occurring for the first time in the association’s 20 years producing these air quality reports. This includes cities in California, Alaska, Utah, Montana, and Washington, many of which are grappling with increasingly intense and destructive wildfires.
Many cities — in California, as well as West Virginia, Alaska, Ohio, and Oregon — have also experienced worsened year-long particle pollution.
The report’s findings come in stark contrast to repeated claims made by Trump, going back as far as his campaign trail in 2015 when he said, “You want to have clean air. You want to have clean water. That’s very important to me, and I’ve won many environmental awards. I am not a believer in climate change.”
Then after being elected, he pledged in his 2017 State of the Union address to “promote clean air and water.”
This mantra continued into 2018. That September, he defended his decision to have the United States withdraw from the Paris climate agreement by stating, “we have the cleanest air now in the world. We have the cleanest water. Remember this. I’m an environmentalist. I want crystal-clean water. I want crystal-clean air.”
He echoed this refrain in a November interview with the Washington Post, during which he said, “You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean.”
These claims, however, run contrary to the anti-environment, deregulatory agenda pursued so far by the Trump administration.
“Unfortunately, this Administration has focused on steps to roll back or create loopholes in core healthy air protections put in place to comply with the Clean Air Act,” the American Lung Association report states. “Not only has this Administration targeted specific Clean Air Act safeguards for rollbacks, it has also sought to weaken the scientific review and undermine the basis for current and future protections.”
Among the rollbacks highlighted by the report is the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, which sought to reduce carbon emissions from coal plants, removing limits on methane emissions from oil and gas operations, and attempts to weaken the Clean Air Act.
This includes targeting mercury and air toxics standards, or MATS — a 2011 set of federal rules under the Clean Air Act designed to reign in the pollution from plants that burn coal and oil. Under Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sought to limit the use of public health data in regulating power plant emissions, a move that essentially guts MATS. Meanwhile, the EPA has also warred with California over the state’s stricter vehicle emissions standards.
Trump has also repeatedly sought to cut the EPA’s budget. Under the 2020 federal budget proposed by the president earlier this year, the EPA would take a 31 percent cut in funding, with pollution prevention programs among those slated for elimination.
In its conclusions, the American Lung Association emphasized that “more must be done to address climate change” and that the Clean Air Act “must remain intact and enforced.” However, it warned that this might not be likely due to actions taken by this administration. As a result, decades of improvements in air quality, it states, is now “threatened.”