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50 US metro areas with the dirtiest air—and why they're at risk during COVID-19

  • 50 US metro areas with the dirtiest air—and why they're at risk during COVID-19

    A Harvard study from April of this year has shown a strong link between places with high levels of air pollution and COVID-19 deaths. The study analyzed 3,080 counties in the United States and found that every increase of 1 μg/m3 of fine particulate matter was associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.

    Further evidence has been discovered by looking at the demographics and locations of the people who are suffering the most from the disease. Initially, some pundits and even researchers had the outlook of COVID-19 as the great equalizer, hitting everyone, no matter who they were. But increasing research has found this not to be true. Low-income and minority communities have been hit the hardest by this disease, and these communities often tend to live in areas with higher levels of pollution.

    In order to better understand which areas might experience the most harm during COVID-19 in the coming months, Stacker consulted the 2019 EPA Air Quality Statistics Report which was published in 2020 and ranked cities by average fine particulate matter (PM 2.5). Ties were broken by the city with the higher 98th percentile daily fine particulate matter average, and exceptional events were excluded from the dataset to better reflect averages over the year. The current EPA standard for PM 2.5 is 12 μg/m3, a reduction from 15 μg/m3 in 2006. The daily standard for PM 2.5 is 35 μg/m3. The daily standard for PM 10, which is large particulate matter, is 150 μg/m3.

    Using this data, Stacker created a list of the 50 U.S. cities with the dirtiest air. Nine of these cities are in California, and three out of the top six are in the Rust Belt, a hub for a lot of the country’s industrial agriculture. For these cities, Stacker has included information about where this pollution is coming from and what this might mean as the coronavirus continues to spread.

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  • #50. Tulsa, Oklahoma

    - Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 9.5 μg/m^3 (20.8% below EPA standard)
    --- Daily average (98th percentile): 23 μg/m^3 (34.3% below EPA standard)
    - Coarse particulate matter (PM10) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 16 μg/m^3
    ---Second-highest daily average: 36 μg/m^3 (76.0% below EPA standard)

    Oklahoma, after years of making improvements in its air quality, saw a dip in 2019. Tulsa, which starts the list of most polluted U.S. cities, saw 10 days of unhealthy air quality that was and one day that was deemed unhealthy for all residents. Some have attributed this change to increased fires. Others, such as Johnson Bridgwater, director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club, said that this lower air quality could be a result of President Donald Trump rolling back environmental regulations.

  • #49. Winston-Salem, North Carolina

    - Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 9.5 μg/m^3 (20.8% below EPA standard)
    --- Daily average (98th percentile): 24 μg/m^3 (31.4% below EPA standard)
    - Coarse particulate matter (PM10) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 14 μg/m^3
    ---Second-highest daily average: 33 μg/m^3 (78.0% below EPA standard)

    Winston-Salem has the lowest air quality of any city in the state of North Carolina. In the state, pollution primarily comes from transportation—mostly automobiles. As in many places, air pollution in the city has decreased due to COVID-19 and social distancing measures.

  • #48. Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, IA-IL

    - Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 9.6 μg/m^3 (20.0% below EPA standard)
    --- Daily average (98th percentile): 24 μg/m^3 (31.4% below EPA standard)
    - Coarse particulate matter (PM10) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 35 μg/m^3
    ---Second-highest daily average: 129 μg/m^3 (14.0% below EPA standard)

    Also known as the Quad Cities, Davenport-Moline-Rock Island are located across Iowa and Illinois. In July 2015, the Quad Cities had the worst air quality in the nation due to smoke from wildfires in Western Canada. Cases of COVID-19 are steadily rising in the Quad Cities, especially in Rock Island County, making the area’s high levels of pollution that much more dangerous.

  • #47. Merced, California

    - Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 9.6 μg/m^3 (20.0% below EPA standard)
    --- Daily average (98th percentile): 30 μg/m^3 (14.3% below EPA standard)
    - Coarse particulate matter (PM10) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 29 μg/m^3
    ---Second-highest daily average: 80 μg/m^3 (46.7% below EPA standard)

    Merced is the first of nine Californian cities on this list. Located in the center of the state in the San Joaquin Valley, the city suffers from pollution coming mostly from cars on nearby highways and from railways. In addition, the area is vulnerable to climate change issues, such as wildfires and rising temperatures, which contribute to ozone pollution. So far, Merced has had relatively few coronavirus cases and deaths—its fourth death came on May 12.

  • #46. Weirton-Steubenville, WV-OH

    - Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 9.6 μg/m^3 (20.0% below EPA standard)
    --- Daily average (98th percentile): 39 μg/m^3 (11.4% above EPA standard)
    - Coarse particulate matter (PM10) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 16 μg/m^3
    ---Second-highest daily average: 49 μg/m^3 (67.3% below EPA standard)

    The Weirton-Steubenville Metropolitan Area has been dealing with the impacts of air pollution for decades. In fact, in the 1970s, the area’s reputation for having the most polluted air in the country made it a hub for environmental epidemiology researchers, and city data played an important role in EPA regulations on air pollution. Much of the current air pollution in the area comes from petrochemical plants. As in much of the country, Ohio Valley, where Weirton-Steubenville is located, is seeing its cases of COVID-19 increasing.

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  • #45. Terre Haute, Indiana

    - Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 9.7 μg/m^3 (19.2% below EPA standard)
    --- Daily average (98th percentile): 23 μg/m^3 (34.3% below EPA standard)
    - Coarse particulate matter (PM10) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 15 μg/m^3
    ---Second-highest daily average: 31 μg/m^3 (79.3% below EPA standard)

    Although Terre Haute, Indiana is #45 on this list, it has actually made some major improvements in its air quality over the last few years. In 2013, the city did not meet the sulfur dioxide air quality standard. However, in July 2019, after collaborating with the EPA to lower their emissions, Terre Haute now meets ambient air quality standards. Unfortunately, the regulations that helped Terre Haute lower its pollution are now being rolled back, putting it at increased risk.

  • #44. Brownsville-Harlingen, Texas

    - Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 9.7 μg/m^3 (19.2% below EPA standard)
    --- Daily average (98th percentile): 25 μg/m^3 (28.6% below EPA standard)

    Brownsville-Harlingen is located on the southern tip of Texas, along the Mexican border. The area’s largest city, Brownsville, has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation. Over 90% of residents are Hispanic or Latinx. Tens of thousands in the region have pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma and COPD, making them especially vulnerable to impacts of COVID-19.

  • #43. Grants Pass, Oregon

    - Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 9.7 μg/m^3 (19.2% below EPA standard)
    --- Daily average (98th percentile): 30 μg/m^3 (14.3% below EPA standard)

    Grants Pass, Oregon, is located in the Rogue Valley, not far north of the California border. Much of the pollution comes from wildfires in southern Oregon and neighboring California. Wildfire season in Oregon and California is approaching and could create further health problems in combination with the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • #42. Jackson, Mississippi

    - Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 9.8 μg/m^3 (18.3% below EPA standard)
    --- Daily average (98th percentile): 23 μg/m^3 (34.3% below EPA standard)
    - Coarse particulate matter (PM10) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 19 μg/m^3
    ---Second-highest daily average: 60 μg/m^3 (60.0% below EPA standard)

    Jackson is the most populated city in Mississippi. The city is 81.4% Black or African American, a demographic that has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mississippi is one of a number of states reporting disproportionate death rates of African Americans, which is due to a number of factors, including the air quality in the places they live.

  • #41. State College, Pennsylvania

    - Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in 2019:
    --- Annual average: 9.8 μg/m^3 (18.3% below EPA standard)
    --- Daily average (98th percentile): 25 μg/m^3 (28.6% below EPA standard)

    Home to Pennsylvania State University, State College is #41 on this list in spite of its idyllic surroundings. Its air quality has suffered mostly due to vehicle emissions along with agricultural processes. It has not yet been decided whether the students who attend Penn State will return for classes in the fall, due to the coronavirus.

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