The American Lung Association’s 2022 “State of the Air Report” revealed millions of people in the U.S. are living in counties with unhealthy ozone and particle pollution. Communities of color were disproportionately impacted. Wayne County, home of several large industrial sites, received an F grade in several categories.
The report combines the most recent air pollution data released by the Environmental Protection Agency. It grades counties and cities and ranks them based on scores for ozone pollution as well as year long and short-term particle pollution levels.
According to the latest report, more than 40% — or 137 million — of Americans are living in places with failing grades for ozone or particulate pollution.
Ken Fletcher is the Director of Advocacy for Ohio and Michigan for the American Lung Association. He says one of the largest counties in Michigan is ranked 24th worst in the nation for ozone pollution.
“And then when you look at the particle pollution, that’s also poor, we got ranked 34th, most polluted for the short-term unhealthy particle pollution days,” Fletcher says.
Wayne County did pass the annual particle pollution test. But that is the one bright spot in the report. “Once again, we saw more unhealthy days than in our previous report. And then we also saw that we’re better in terms of the year-round particle pollution, but we are tied for 16th most polluted for year-round particle pollution. So tthe metro Detroit area really needs to be cleaned up.”
Fletcher says an increase in ozone action days was a strong indicator that the air quality in Wayne County was failing.
“When you have ozone action days, really, it’s certainly something that poses a risk to those who have compromised systems to start with those who have asthma, COPD, those who have heart disease, those who have lung cancer, also the elderly, and the young, those are days when it could trigger an asthma attack if you have asthma, or it could certainly worsen your COPD and make it harder to breathe.”
Fletcher says ozone action days are impacting people in every aspect of life. “So those days clearly impact that population who may have some adverse health effects directly related to breathing that air. But even healthy people, if you have a job, say where you’re outside, working all day, breathe in unhealthy air all day, that certainly can impact you too.”
The report highlighted that communities with majority Black and brown people suffered the most. Showing communities of color are disproportionately exposed to air pollution, resulting in a host of chronic medical conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease.
“When you have ozone action days, really, it’s certainly something that poses a risk to those who have compromised systems to start with those who have asthma, COPD, those who have heart disease, those who have lung cancer, also the elderly, and the young, those are days when it could trigger an asthma attack if you have asthma, or it could certainly worsen your COPD and make it harder to breathe.” —Ken Fletcher, American Lung Association
According to the report, nearly 19.8 million people live in 14 counties that failed every single test. And out of those almost 20 million people, 14 million are people of color.
Fletcher says communities of color are almost four times more likely to live in a county with a failing grade than their white counterparts. “A lot of our people of color are living in urban areas in our cities. And those are some of the places where we have the worst air quality. So really in terms of equity, we need to really clean up the air in those urban areas so that we can reduce those challenges and those threats to them.”
Fletcher says there needs to be sweeping changes from the state and federal levels. “Governor Whitmer is making steps to implement her plan to help impact climate change and to move in the direction of helping transition to electric vehicles.”
Whitmer recently announced the “MI Healthy Climate Plan,” which highlights the goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
Fletcher says it’s time to start holding polluters accountable for the harm being caused by air pollution.
“On the federal level, we need to continue to improve our standards of where ozone pollution and particle pollution and then need to make sure that we start holding the polluters responsible, that we do what needs to be done to clean up those power plants, clean up those factories that are still putting the pollution into the air.”