Report: 40% of Americans Breathe Unhealthy Air as Wildfires Worsen

The American Lung Association's 2024 "State of the Air" report finds nearly 40% of Americans, or 130 million people, live in areas with unhealthy air pollution levels. Climate change-driven heat waves, droughts, and wildfires are key contributors to the decline in air quality.

author-image
Trim Correspondents
New Update
Report: 40% of Americans Breathe Unhealthy Air as Wildfires Worsen

Report: 40% of Americans Breathe Unhealthy Air as Wildfires Worsen

Report, finds, millions, affected A sobering report released by the American Lung Association reveals that nearly 40% of Americans, or around 130 million people, live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution. The 2024 "State of the Air" report found that 11.7 million more people are breathing polluted air compared to last year, with people of color disproportionately impacted.

Why this matters: The decline in air quality has significant implications for public health, as it can exacerbate existing health conditions and increase the risk of respiratory diseases. If left unaddressed, the worsening air quality could lead to a reversal of the progress made in reducing air pollution-related illnesses and mortality rates.

The report cites heat waves, droughts, and wildfires as key contributors to the decline in air quality. Extreme weather events have become more frequent and severe due to climate change, with dirty fossil fuels generating the majority of heat-trapping gases warming the planet. "Cleaner air equals better health," said Christa Hasenkopf, director of the clean air program at the University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute.

Polluted air has been linked to a range of health problems, including asthma, lung cancer, cognitive issues, and metabolic disorders. The Clean Air Act of 1970 has helped add around 1.4 years to the average American life expectancy, but the backslide in air quality threatens to chip away at those gains. People of color are 2.3 times more likely to live in counties with failing grades for ozone and particle pollution levels.

While there was some good news, with 2.4 million fewer people living in areas with failing ozone grades, much work remains to be done. In February, the Environmental Protection Agency announced stricter regulations for air quality, projected to prevent 4,500 premature deaths and 800,000 cases of asthma symptoms. However, climate change is making it harder to meet clean air goals.

Wildfire smoke and other climate-influenced problems are endangering the progress made in recent decades. In 2023, smoke from Canadian wildfires caused unhealthy air quality in New York City and across much of the U.S. As the 2024 wildfire season gets underway, over 100 blazes are already burning in Canada, with authorities warning that dry conditions will make the situation "very challenging." The health costs of breathing wildfire smoke can be high, underscoring the urgent need for action to address climate change and protect public health.

Key Takeaways

  • 40% of Americans (130 million) live in areas with unhealthy air pollution levels.
  • Air pollution disproportionately affects people of color, who are 2.3 times more likely to live in polluted areas.
  • Climate change-driven heat waves, droughts, and wildfires worsen air quality, threatening public health.
  • Polluted air is linked to various health problems, including asthma, lung cancer, and cognitive issues.
  • Stricter EPA regulations aim to prevent 4,500 premature deaths and 800,000 asthma cases, but climate change hinders progress.