Unhealthy levels of air pollution in many American cities are harming the health of residents, especially those who have asthma. Although clear air laws that regulate industrial smokestacks, car engines and other sources of pollution have resulted in cleaner air, primary sources of air pollution remain. Among the largest remaining sources of harmful pollutants are coal-fired electric power plants that were built before clean air laws were written in the early 1970s. These power plants are permitted to release thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and mercury into the air each year, putting the health of millions of Americans at risk, particularly those who live in urban areas and particularly those who have asthma.
Who Is Affected?
According to the American Lung Association, by 2020 asthma will affect 1 in 14 Americans and 1 in 5 families. Asthma is the leading serious chronic illness in children: approximately 25% of children between the ages of 15 and 17 have their activities limited due to asthma. Medical studies increasingly show that air pollution plays a significant role in triggering asthma attacks. Exposure to air pollution has been linked to increased use of medications and an increased rate of emergency room visits and hospitalizations for people living with asthma.
More than 2 million American children with asthma and a disproportionate number of children of color live in areas that do not meet federal clean air standards. Approximately 61.3% of African American children, 69.2% of Hispanic children and 67.7% of Asian American children live in areas that fail to meet federal smog standards. In 2000, African-American children were three to four times more likely than white children to be hospitalized for asthma, five times more likely to seek care for asthma in an emergency room, and three times more likely to die from asthma than white children.
The American Lung Association reports each year on urban air quality in its “State of the Air” report and has fact sheets and other resources on asthma and air pollution. Check their website or contact your local Lung Association chapter. You can also obtain information on environmental quality in your community from national and state environmental protection agencies such as the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Many national environmental groups are working to pass stronger clean air laws. Their websites can give you information about legislation that your elected officials should be supporting. The Clear the Air Coalition website includes information about national issues and can also give you information about air pollution problems and sources in your community.