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More than 138 million people, nearly 44% of the U.S. population, live in areas where air pollution reaches dangerously high levels during parts of the year. While exposure to low quality air has declined in recent years, some cities still experience alarming levels of pollution.
Based on “State of the Air,” a report released annually by the American Lung Association (ALA), 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 10 leading metro areas with the highest levels of year-round particle pollution. The Fresno-Madera, California metro area led the nation with the worst long-term pollution level.
The report considers two types of pollution: ozone pollution and particle pollution, which can be measured both in short and long-term. Speaking to 24/7 Wall St. Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy at the ALA, explained the three measures. Ozone is a gas formed in the atmosphere through heat, sunlight, and certain gases that can attack lung tissue. Particle pollution is tiny pieces of matter so small that they can bypass the body’s defenses and be inhaled into the lungs. The long-term particulate measure is the average, daily pollution generated by factories, fires, and transportation. Long term particle pollution is measured in micro-grams per cubic meter (ug/M3).The short-term particulate measure represents how many days of extreme air pollution occur, and usually reflects how extreme conditions such as fire or drought are creating abnormally high levels of unhealthy particles.
In the 2015 report, six cities set local records for the most days with dangerously high levels of particle pollution, including the San Francisco and Visalia, Calif., metropolitan areas. Nolen said these were surprising results. “We’ve been doing this report for 16 years, and generally speaking, you’ll see a variation in pollution levels from one year to the next, but almost never do you set new records because we’ve made huge improvements in reducing pollution.” Nolen went on to explain that these cities, all in the Western United States, had just begun to experience drought conditions — that are still ongoing — when these data were collected from 2011 through 2013. The drought has only worsened since 2013. “When we get into next year’s report and the year after, I think we’ll see even higher levels in these areas.”
Several of the most polluted cities, notably Pittsburgh and Cleveland, are former manufacturing and production strongholds. While these areas are no longer the industrial strongholds of their heydays, enough industrial and manufacturing production remains for the cities to maintain their standings among the most polluted places in the country. While Pittsburgh’s skies are no longer blackened with the smoke from steel factories, it still generates a great deal of particulate pollution. According to Nolen, the biggest source of pollution in the area is the U.S. Steel plant.
Several of the most polluted cities are located in or near the Central Valley in California. In addition to the wildfires and drought that have affected the region, the area’s natural topography exacerbates the pollution problem. The Central Valley is surrounded by mountains on three sides, which traps the pollution from the San Francisco Bay Area in the valley. Five of the 10 most polluted cities, including parts of the San Francisco metro area, are in the California Central Valley.
Air pollution, both ozone and particulate, contributes to lower life expectancy. In particular, polluted air poses significant health risks to individuals who already have certain respiratory conditions. While there is no evidence that proves that air pollution is the reason that asthma has increased in prevalence in the last 40 years, Nolen said, air pollution exacerbates the effects of asthma and can be the cause of an asthma attack. In Los Angeles, one of the cities with the worst air pollution in the country, more than 1.6 million residents are living with asthma.
While conditions in some cities have worsened, the air quality in many of the cities with the worst air pollution has improved since last year’s report. Nolen explained that every five years, the Environmental Protection Agency determines the safe levels of ozone and particle pollution. Cities and communities around the country have to formulate and implement plans to reduce pollution in order to meet national air quality standards set by the EPA. People in cities such as Philadelphia, which reported its lowest levels of annual particle pollution to date in the 2015 report, have the Clean Air Act to thank. Nolen attributed more efficient vehicles, cleaner-burning fuel, cleaner power plants and an overall reduction in emissions and pollution since 1970 to the Clean Air Act.
To identify the 10 most polluted cities, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the metropolitan statistical areas with the highest levels of year-round particle pollution from the ALA’s 2015 “State of the Air” report. The number of area residents with asthma, including the number of adults and the number of pediatric cases of the disease, also came from the ALA. The incidence of cardiovascular disease, and the number of residents who have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at some point in their lives also came from the ALA. All estimates of pollution levels are based on three-year annual averages from 2011 through 2013.
These are America’s 10 most polluted cities.
1. Fresno-Madera, Calif.
> Average year-round particle pollution: 18.1 ug/M3
> People with asthma: 96,760
> Population: 1,107,661
> High ozone days per year: 68
Air pollution improved in Fresno-Madera, but the metro area is still the most polluted in the country, as it was in the ALA’s 2014 report. As in other parts of California, the statewide, multi-year drought has likely worsened air quality in the area over the past several years. Hot and dry weather can promote dust storms and wildfires, which trap particulates generated by power plants and other carbon emitters. Fresno residents have experienced an average of 68 high-ozone days a year, the sixth highest rate in the country.
2. Bakersfield, Calif.
> Average year-round particle pollution: 17.3 ug/M3
> People with asthma: 75,406
> Population: 864,124
> High ozone days per year: 69.7
Bakersfield residents have endured nearly 70 high-ozone level days a year, the third highest rate compared with other U.S. cities. Still, this was a considerable improvement for the area when compared to years past since the ALA began reporting on air quality. As in other California metro areas, however, particularly those in the state’s Central Valley, annual particle pollution worsened last year, partly due to the severe drought conditions in the region. Also, the topography and industrial composition of the Valley is conducive to air pollution problems. Adding to the region’s especially poor air quality is pollution generated by cars and trucks travelling through the region’s major throughways and the toxic gases from manure on the millions of acres of the area’s farmland.
3. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, Calif.
> Average year-round particle pollution: 17.0 ug/M3
> People with asthma: 52,749
> Population: 605,103
> High ozone days per year: 82.7
Visalia is located almost directly in between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The city had had an average of nearly 83 high-ozone days a year, the second highest rate in the country. The Visalia metro area was one of six California metros to break the top 10 for ozone pollution, ranking second in the nation despite this year reporting the fewest days of unhealthy ozone levels in its reporting history. On the other hand, the city, like many other Valley cities, experienced its worst year for particulate pollution.
4. Modesto-Merced, Calif.
> Average year-round particle pollution: 15.7 ug/M3
> People with asthma: 69,027
> Population: 788,719
> High ozone days per year: 22.3
Modesto residents have experienced an average of 22 high ozone days per year. Only seven metro areas in the country had a greater number of high ozone days. Located almost directly in the center of California’s Central Valley, an area surrounded on three sides by mountains that limit wind and annual rainfall, polluted air stagnates in Modesto. The city was one of six in the country that failed to meet federal air quality standards and where particle pollution worsened since last year’s report. Nearly 70,000 Modesto residents suffer from asthma, and over 25,000 area adults have been diagnosed with COPD.
5. Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif.
> Average year-round particle pollution: 15.1 ug/M3
> People with asthma: 1,607,111
> Population: 18,351,929
> High ozone days per year: 117.7
Los Angeles port’s cargo volume this past July was the highest ever in its over 100-year history. According to the EPA, high traffic through the port creates higher emissions that contribute to poor air quality throughout the region. High concentrations of power plants, including numerous oil and gas, petroleum, and electricity plants, release tens of millions of metric tons of carbon emissions each year. While the area is among the nation’s most polluted, Los Angeles reported its lowest pollution levels since the ALA started producing this report. Still, in Los Angeles, residents have experienced an average of 117.7 days of high ozone levels each year, the most of any U.S. metropolitan area.
A common pollutant in vehicle exhaust, power plant emissions and cigarette smoke can shrink white matter in fetal brains and cause developmental damage during the toddler years, a new study suggests.
In 40 children examined by researchers, prenatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons was correlated with reduced white matter on the left side of children’s brains during their early childhood. Those physical changes in the brain’s internal wiring also were correlated with slower cognitive processing and with symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
“They tend to be fidgety and hyperactive and very impulsive, so they leap before they look,” said Dr. Bradley Peterson, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the lead author of the report.
The researchers had previously tied behavioral and cognitive problems to eight common types of these pollutants, which are a product of incomplete combustion of organic materials. The new study now suggests those problems have a biological root in the altered architecture of the brain.
The research involved 655 New York City women of Dominican and African American descent who gave birth between 1997 and 2006. During late pregnancy, the women carried detector backpacks that measured exposure to PAHs over 48 hours. Their children later were tested for exposure and underwent several rounds of cognitive and behavioral testing.
For the JAMA Psychiatry study, Peterson and his colleagues selected a representative sample from the original study group: 20 children whose own PAH readings were below the median and 20 whose PAH levels were above it. All the children were about 8 years old when they underwent magnetic resonance imagery scans.
Those scans showed that white matter was significantly reduced from normal volumes throughout the left hemisphere, an area that controls language and cognition, among other higher functions.
In fact, the higher their prenatal exposure to PAH was, the more white matter was reduced and the more acute the behavioral and developmental problems were, the study found.
Scientists don’t know why the left side seemed to be affected more, but they suspect the compounds interfere with an early biochemical process that helps the fetal brain divide into slightly asymmetrical hemispheres.
The damage, however, is not isolated to prenatal stages, or to the left hemisphere. Postnatal PAH exposure, measured at age 5, correlated with diminished white matter in areas of the prefrontal cortex of both hemispheres, the study found.
“It’s a double hit,” Peterson said. “They have the abnormality from prenatal life throughout the left hemisphere and then on top of that they have this bilateral frontal hit from exposures around age 5.”
The 40 children were from nonsmoking homes and had little or no exposure to lead or insecticides that likewise have been linked to developmental and behavioral problems, according to the study. All were right-handed.
Although it remains possible that other pollutants could be affecting the results, the researchers said their sampling methods eliminated the major contenders, helping to isolate the effects of the PAH compounds.
Numerous studies have linked air pollution — especially particulate matter — to respiratory and cardiac problems. But over the last decade, researchers have accumulated more evidence that particles and other types of airborne pollution can affect brain development.
A 2012 study using a database of 19,000 nurses found greater cognitive decline among older women exposed to high levels of particulate matter. A 2011 Boston study involving 680 men showed similar results. A series of studies involving children in Mexico City linked air pollution with the brain inflammation that is typical of diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
“It is worrisome,” Peterson said of the latest findings. “California has gone a long way toward improving and cleaning up the air, but there’s a long way to go. Future generations depend on it.”
Every morning, I send my daughters off to school with a kiss on the cheek and a heavy heart. School is supposed to be a safe and supportive environment where children are able to learn without worrying about threats to their health. Unfortunately, this is not the case in my hometown of Shafter, California.
California state laws have allowed oil companies to hydraulically fracture oil wells perilously close to my daughters’ schools, exposing them to dangerous air toxins and putting their health and safety at risk on a daily basis.
Earlier this summer, two weeks after California’s first-ever hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, regulations went into effect, my family filed a lawsuit against Governor Jerry Brown and California Oil and Gas Supervisor Steve Bohlen. We are challenging the regulations for illegally discriminating against students of color by permitting wells that are disproportionately close to the schools they attend.
Fracking is a process used to extract oil from the ground that involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and hundreds of different chemicals into the ground at very high pressures to fracture the rock and release oil.
There are 45 fracked wells within a mile and a half of my daughter’s junior high school. At Sequoia Elementary School, which she attended for years, there are three separate fracked wells within a half-mile of the school, and one that is just 1,200 feet from the school.
Many students at the school suffer from asthma and serious, debilitating illnesses. What is causing this spike in health problems in normally healthy children? Fracking. It exposes our children to unsafe levels of air toxins that can cause a broad variety of serious health complications, including asthma. Students at my daughter’s schools were often forced to stay inside for weeks at a time because of the noxious fumes from the fracking sites. They think it’s strange when people don’t get nosebleeds every day. For too many of California’s Latino public school students, this is normal.
Shortly after fracking began near her school, my youngest daughter began to suffer from unexplainable epileptic attacks. We’ve taken her to numerous doctors and specialists, but no one has been able to tell us the real cause of her illness. As a result of these health complications, her life has been forever changed. My daughter, a girl who loved sports and learning, no longer plays outside. She fears for her health and safety every day because of how close fracking occurs to her school.
This is unacceptable for any Californian, but it is especially disturbing given the fact that fracking overwhelmingly occurs close to schools that serve predominately Latino public school students, the majority of whom live in communities already overburdened by pollution and the resulting negative health impacts. My own town of Shafter is ranked in the top 10% of the most polluted communities in the state – our children can’t afford exposure to these additional toxins.
The children of Shafter are not the only ones who suffer from this injustice. More than 60% of the 61,612 California children who attend school within one mile of a stimulated well are Latino. Statewide, Latino students are over 18% more likely to attend a school within a mile and a half of a stimulated well than non-Latino students.
I’m fighting back and speaking up because this injustice cannot stand. Oil companies should not be able to endanger the health and safety of Latino children across the state. My children’s education means everything to me.
It means a chance at a vibrant, fulfilling and happy future. It is their path to opportunities I never had. My daughters deserve to be able to go to school without fearing for their health and safety. They deserve play outside without the air they breathe poisoning them.
My family has faith that the courts will stand up for our children’s rights, and hold our state accountable for allowing this dangerous activity to interfere with the quality of their education.
Jerry Brown is the governor of California. He spoke ahead of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Leadership Summit about politics and the value of his state’s emissions trading system in building a healthier, cleaner future. The state’s economy is growing, and its climate work is setting a pace for the nation.
“The science of climate change, of course, is very clear. The politics – not so.
The politics of climate change are murky, uncertain, and often totally ineffective. That’s why it’s good to take a look at what’s happening in California. This state has a program to deal with carbon pollution, to encourage renewable energy, electric cars, efficient buildings and appliances.
And despite taking the leading role in combating climate change in the United States, if not in the world, our economy is not only recovering, it is expanding at a greater rate than the rest of the country. Not that we don’t face our barriers and obstacles and even political opposition, but we are carrying on because we know in California that carbon pollution kills, it undermines our environment, and, long-term, it’s an economic loser.
There has to be a price on carbon, because there is a price on carbon – it’s the consequences to health, to the economy, and to our climate. We face an existential challenge with the changes in our climate. The time to act is now. The place to look is California. We’re not finished, but we sure are setting the pace.”
Fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of $5.3tn (£3.4tn) a year, equivalent to $10m a minute every day, according to a startling new estimate by the International Monetary Fund.
The IMF calls the revelation “shocking” and says the figure is an “extremely robust” estimate of the true cost of fossil fuels. The $5.3tn subsidy estimated for 2015 is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments.
The vast sum is largely due to polluters not paying the costs imposed on governments by the burning of coal, oil and gas. These include the harm caused to local populations by air pollution as well as to people across the globe affected by the floods, droughts and storms being driven by climate change.
Nicholas Stern, an eminent climate economist at the London School of Economics, said: “This very important analysis shatters the myth that fossil fuels are cheap by showing just how huge their real costs are. There is no justification for these enormous subsidies for fossil fuels, which distort markets and damages economies, particularly in poorer countries.”
Lord Stern said that even the IMF’s vast subsidy figure was a significant underestimate: “A more complete estimate of the costs due to climate change would show the implicit subsidies for fossil fuels are much bigger even than this report suggests.”
The IMF, one of the world’s most respected financial institutions, said that ending subsidies for fossil fuels would cut global carbon emissions by 20%. That would be a giant step towards taming global warming, an issue on which the world has made little progress to date.
Ending the subsidies would also slash the number of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution by 50% – about 1.6 million lives a year.
Furthermore, the IMF said the resources freed by ending fossil fuel subsidies could be an economic “game-changer” for many countries, by driving economic growth and poverty reduction through greater investment in infrastructure, health and education and also by cutting taxes that restrict growth.
Another consequence would be that the need for subsidies for renewable energy – a relatively tiny $120bn a year – would also disappear, if fossil fuel prices reflected the full cost of their impacts.
“These [fossil fuel subsidy] estimates are shocking,” said Vitor Gaspar, the IMF’s head of fiscal affairs and former finance minister of Portugal. “Energy prices remain woefully below levels that reflect their true costs.”
David Coady, the IMF official in charge of the report, said: “When the [$5.3tn] number came out at first, we thought we had better double check this!” But the broad picture of huge global subsidies was “extremely robust”, he said. “It is the true cost associated with fossil fuel subsidies.”
The IMF estimate of $5.3tn in fossil fuel subsidies represents 6.5% of global GDP. Just over half the figure is the money governments are forced to spend treating the victims of air pollution and the income lost because of ill health and premature deaths. The figure is higher than a 2013 IMF estimate because new data from the World Health Organisation shows the harm caused by air pollution to be much higher than thought.
Coal is the dirtiest fuel in terms of both local air pollution and climate-warming carbon emissions and is therefore the greatest beneficiary of the subsidies, with just over half the total. Oil, heavily used in transport, gets about a third of the subsidy and gas the rest.
The biggest single source of air pollution is coal-fired power stations and China, with its large population and heavy reliance on coal power, provides $2.3tn of the annual subsidies. The next biggest fossil fuel subsidies are in the US ($700bn), Russia ($335bn), India ($277bn) and Japan ($157bn), with the European Union collectively allowing $330bn in subsidies to fossil fuels.
The costs resulting from the climate change driven by fossil fuel emissions account for subsidies of $1.27tn a year, about a quarter, of the IMF’s total. The IMF calculated this cost using an official US government estimate of $42 a tonne of CO2 (in 2015 dollars), a price “very likely to underestimate” the true cost, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The direct subsidising of fuel for consumers, by government discounts on diesel and other fuels, account for just 6% of the IMF’s total. Other local factors, such as reduced sales taxes on fossil fuels and the cost of traffic congestion and accidents, make up the rest. The IMF says traffic costs are included because increased fuel prices would be the most direct way to reduce them.
Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate change chief charged with delivering a deal to tackle global warming at a crunch summit in December, said: “The IMF provides five trillion reasons for acting on fossil fuel subsidies. Protecting the poor and the vulnerable is crucial to the phasing down of these subsidies, but the multiple economic, social and environmental benefits are long and legion.”
Barack Obama and the G20 nations called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies in 2009, but little progress had been made until oil prices fell in 2014. In April, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, told the Guardian that it was crazy that governments were still driving the use of coal, oil and gas by providing subsidies. “We need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies now,” he said.
Reform of the subsidies would increase energy costs but Kim and the IMF both noted that existing fossil fuel subsidies overwhelmingly go to the rich, with the wealthiest 20% of people getting six times as much as the poorest 20% in low and middle-income countries. Gaspar said that with oil and coal prices currently low, there was a “golden opportunity” to phase out subsidies and use the increased tax revenues to reduce poverty through investment and to provide better targeted support.
Subsidy reforms are beginning in dozens of countries including Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco and Thailand. In India, subsidies for diesel ended in October 2014. “People said it would not be possible to do that,” noted Coady. Coal use has also begun to fall in China for the first time this century.
On renewable energy, Coady said: “If we get the pricing of fossil fuels right, the argument for subsidies for renewable energy will disappear. Renewable energy would all of a sudden become a much more attractive option.”
Shelagh Whitley, a subsidies expert at the Overseas Development Institute, said: “The IMF report is yet another reminder that governments around the world are propping up a century-old energy model. Compounding the issue, our research shows that many of the energy subsidies highlighted by the IMF go towardfinding new reserves of oil, gas and coal, which we know must be left in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic, irreversible climate change.”
Developing the international cooperation needed to tackle climate change has proved challenging but a key message from the IMF’s work, according to Gaspar, is that each nation will directly benefit from tackling its own fossil fuel subsidies. “The icing on the cake is that the benefits from subsidy reform – for example, from reduced pollution – would overwhelmingly accrue to local populations,” he said.
“By acting local, and in their own best interest, [nations] can contribute significantly to the solution of a global challenge,” said Gaspar. “The path forward is clear: act local, solve global.”