Which American Cities Have the Worst Air Quality?

A number of variables can impact the quality of the air you breathe. Your pets, VOCs, household cleaners, and wildfires can all hurt the air. Your location can play a role, too. So, what American cities have poor air quality? Let’s look at some of the top offenders in the nation.

5 American Cities with Poor Air Quality

Some cities are worse than others. Here’s what you can expect in different areas around the United States — and why they are the way they are.

1. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California

According to the American Lung Association, LA ranked 1st for high ozone days, 8th for 24-hour particle pollution, and 5th for annual particle pollution — all out of over 200 metropolitan areas. These numbers mean it might have the worst air quality in the whole country.

The reason for it is startling. The climate change that southern California has experienced makes for more extreme heat, in addition to bigger and more frequent wildfires. Both of these things negatively affect ozone issues. Transportation is another contributing factor. 40% of all US imports come through the ports of LA and Long Beach. As a result, air pollution is troubling.

2. Fairbanks, Alaska

Fairbanks isn’t far behind, coming in 3rd for 24-hour particle pollution and 7th for annual particle pollution — although it’s tied for 1st for cleanest metropolitan areas in the nation for ozone levels. However, it still has some of the worst air quality in the US.

One of the predominant reasons for Fairbanks’ pollution is interesting, although concerning. The city is surrounded by hills on three sides. This makes it more susceptible to temperature inversions. When this happens, a layer of cold air hovers close to the ground. This means that even a tiny amount of pollution can be trapped there for days or weeks at a time since pollution is often worse in colder temperatures. The change in density makes it harder for pollutants to escape and disperse.

3. Yakima, Washington

Yakima stands in 9th for 24-hour particle pollution and 21st for annual particle pollution out of more than 200 metropolitan areas. You now know that the winter months can be more brutal, and sure enough, in Yakima, the winter season can mean particle pollution with a concentration three times greater than it is in the summer.

What’s going on in Yakima that the air quality is so poor? Major contributing factors include mobile sources (like freight trucks and farm equipment), stationary sources (like processing plants and construction sites), and area sources (like wood burning and windblown dust). 

Still, the poor air quality is more so due to Yakima’s geography and climate, as opposed to the aforementioned emissions. Temperature inversion is an issue here, similar to Fairbanks. Plus, Yakima is situated in a basin between mountains. Cold air gets further trapped and stays there until the weather patterns change.

4. Denver-Aurora, Colorado

Denver is known for its picturesque landscapes and dreamlike seasons. But it’s also ranked 7th for high ozone days, 26th for 24-hour particle pollution, and 31st for annual particle pollution.

Frustratingly, some of Denver’s air pollution is out of the city’s control. Smoke from California’s wildfires blows into the Denver area and gets trapped there. Intense pollution from cars and factories is also an issue. This pollution chemically reacts with direct sunlight, and it creates ground-level ozone. This further infuses the air with pollutants.

On the flip side, Colorado Springs has some of the cleanest air in the US.

5. Detroit-Warren-Ann Arbor, Michigan

Flint’s water quality is an ongoing concern, but that’s not all. Detroit and its surrounding cities rank 24th for high ozone days, 34th for 24-hour particle pollution, and 16th for annual particle pollution. The Motor City continues to battle poor air quality due to its concentration of heavy industrial facilities, coal-powered plants, and transportation corridors.

In particular, two coal-fired power plants are some of the biggest culprits. They’re some of the heaviest producers of sulfur dioxide (SO2), releasing a combined 34,000 tons of SO2 into the breathing air.

When it comes to Detroit, we’re also looking at contributors like an oil refinery, wastewater treatment plant, steel mill, three high-traffic highways, and a six-lane bridge. Each of these alone is enough to cause damage. Combined, the results are far worse.

Air Problems are Everyone’s Problem

You might be thinking, “Okay… and?” It helps to look at the impact that poor air quality has on an individual’s health.

Air quality affects health in a number of ways. Poor air quality can lead to upper respiratory diseases and issues, including:

  • Lung irritation.
  • Lung cancer.
  • Heart attack.
  • Stroke.
  • Premature death.
  • Coughing.
  • A runny nose.
  • Congestion.
  • Sneezing.
  • Wheezing.
  • A dry or sore throat.
  • Chest discomfort.

If you have asthma, you’re even more susceptible to the ramifications of poor air quality. Current or former smokers, the elderly, infants and children, and pregnant women also need to be extra cautious.

It’s easy to dismiss these concerns since you often can’t see air pollution. But the dangers are real. And while seeing positive changes in outdoor air quality requires big adjustments from all of us (especially businesses and policymakers), you have much more control when it comes to the air you breathe indoors.

On average, Americans spend roughly 90% of their day indoors. And inside, the concentration of certain pollutants can be two to five times higher than it is outside. You can protect yourself and your loved ones from these dangers with some simple but powerful lifestyle changes:

  • Clean your home regularly, and more frequently if you have pets. This can help prevent dust mites, fur, and dander from building up.
  • Check the current air quality in your area with AirNow.gov. If it’s bad, try to stay inside and keep the windows closed.
  • Use a high-quality air purifier with a medical-grade HEPA 13 filter to trap pollutants, bacteria, and viruses.

The air quality will never be perfect, but when you’re in the safety of the indoors, you have more say over the air you breathe. Shop with Sans today and feel the difference.