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The State Of The Nation's Air, And Your Lungs

American air is better than ever—in most places.

As China disappears behind an ever thickening cloud of smog, we can be thankful of one thing here in the United States: the air’s getting cleaner (mostly). The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2013 report shows that 18 cities have lower particle pollution, compared to previous years; 16 had their lowest ever figures.

Still, the improvement isn’t across the board. Almost 25 million people live with unhealthy levels of ozone and particle pollution. And 131 million people (42%) live with one type or the other. California comes off particularly badly in the city rankings. The top-five most polluted metros by ozone, year-round, and short-term particulate pollution are all from that state. Bakersfield, which ranks highest for particulates among 277 metros, fares worst of all (though it has improved).

Overall, 119 counties have ozone levels that put citizens at risk from "aggravated asthma, difficulty breathing, cardiovascular harm and lower birth weight". Fifty-eight counties have particulate levels that "increase risks of heart attacks, strokes, and emergency room visits for asthma and cardiovascular disease."

Some cities, such as Salt Lake City and Fairbanks, Alaska, are experiencing more frequent "short-term pollution spikes." Of 25 cities with the worst short-term problems, 14 had more poor days than in previous "State of the Air" reports. "In some cities, the increase comes from increased burning of wood and other fuels in the winter for heat, often in highly polluting indoor wood stoves or outdoor wood boilers," it says.

As for the cleanest places, New Mexico boasts two of the top five for particulates (Santa Fe and Farmington), Wyoming has another (Cheyenne), then there’s Prescott, Arizona, and St. George, Utah. To see where your city ranks, the Lung Association has a useful zip code search function.

"State of the Air" uses data collected by the E.P.A. between 2009 and 2011, and its main point is to argue for continued enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Since its introduction in 1970, population and energy consumption have risen by roughly 50%, and gross domestic product by 212%, the report shows. And yet emissions of the six most common pollutants have fallen by 68%. China can only dream of such a growth to pollution ratio.