What Cities Have the Most Polluted Air?

UNITED STATES

The American Lung Association’s ‘state of the air’ report finds 166 million Americans living with unsafe levels of air pollution. (Guardian)

Use our activity to better understand air quality and factors that contribute to air pollution.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources, including a link to today’s MapMaker Interactive map.

Use today’s MapMaker Interactive map to help put the “State of the Air” report in geographic perspective. What US cities have the most air pollution? Which are the cleanest? How might natural and human factors impact air quality?

Use today’s MapMaker Interactive map to help put the “State of the Air” report in geographic perspective. What US cities have the most air pollution? Which are the cleanest? How might natural and human factors impact air quality?

Discussion Ideas
Read through our terrific activity, “Measuring Air Quality,” and adapt its questions to better understand the “State of the Air” report.

  • The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report measured air quality using three standards: ozone pollution, year-round particle pollution, and short-term particle pollution. How are these types of air pollution distinct?
    • ozone pollution. Ozone pollution is better known as smog. Ozone develops in the atmosphere from gases that come out of tailpipes, smokestacks, and many other sources. When these gases come in contact with sunlight, they react and form ozone smog.
    • particle pollution. Particle pollution (also called particulate matter or PM) describes a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope.
      • “Year-round” refers to the average concentration of particles over a year-long period.
      • “Short-term” refers to the average concentration of particles over a 24-hour period.

 

 

Illustration by the American Lung Association

Illustration by the American Lung Association

  • What causes poor air quality events?
    • Natural events (such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions) can introduce harmful particles into the air.
    • Human activity (such as burning fuels and using volatile organic compounds) can also put pollutants into the air.

 

  • Take a look at today’s MapMaker Interactive map. Which areas of the country have the worst air quality?
    • Southern California, Central California, and the southern Rust Belt, stretching from Kentucky and Indiana through Ohio and Southern Pennsylvania, by some measures have the most polluted air in the country.

 

  • What do you think is the cause for the poor air quality in Southern California, Central California, and the southern Rust Belt?
    • Natural activity likely contributed to poor air quality. Specifically, California’s megadrought may have increased the dust, grass and wildfire particles in the air.
    • Human activity likely contributed to poor air quality through vehicle and factory emissions. In smaller cities, burning wood as a heat source appears to contribute to the problem.

 

  • What data may skew the State of the Air report?
    • The American Lung Association is missing information from the states of Illinois, Florida, and Tennessee.

 

Illustration by the American Lung Association

Illustration by the American Lung Association

 

  • What do officials suggest people do when bad air quality is forecast?
    • When bad air quality is forecast, officials suggest limiting outdoor activities.

 

  • How might individuals and communities mitigate bad air quality events in the future?
    • Humans might be able to mitigate bad air quality events through changes to our daily lives, improved technology, and support for strong environmental legislation.
      • Changes to our daily lives might include increased use of public transportation, increased reliance on locally produced goods and services, a stop to burning wood or trash, investment in electric vehicles, reduced investment in heavily packaged products, or fewer travel days entirely.
      • Improved technology might include equipment that removes more emissions from cars, factories, and power plants. Technology could also change so that manufacturing and transportation methods don’t require burning fuels that release pollutants into the air.
      • Stronger environmental legislation might include financial incentives to companies that reduce emissions or prevent the spread of air pollutants, fines for companies that exceed emissions limits or manufacture vehicles that don’t comply with emissions standards, and establishing a more comprehensive air-quality monitoring network.

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Guardian: More than half US population lives amid dangerous air pollution, report warns

Nat Geo: Measuring Air Quality activity

Nat Geo: What cities have the most polluted air in the U.S.? map

American Lung Association: State of the Air Report—Key Findings (download the whole report here)

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