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What Is Year-round Particle Pollution?

Particle pollution is a mix of very tiny solid and liquid particles in the air. "Year-Round" refers to an annual average level that represents the concentration of particles day-in-and-day-out.

This year saw mixed results in terms of annual particle levels among the 26 most polluted cities in the United States: 13 of these cities saw increased particle levels; 11 cities improved; one was not included in last year’s report, and one maintained the same levels as last year’s report. Nine cities among the most polluted achieved their lowest ever annual particle levels. (The list of most polluted cities for annual particle pollution contains 26 cities instead of 25 due to a tie for 25th place.)

More people live in areas with unhealthy year-round particle pollution than in last year’s report. More than 21.2 million people live in 19 counties where the annual average concentration of particle pollution was too high. This is higher than the 20.5 million Americans living in 18 counties in the 2019 report.

Bakersfield, CA returned to the rank of most polluted city for year-round particle pollution in 2016-2018. As with the short-term particle category, Bakersfield and Fresno also swapped rankings for annual particle pollution levels. Bakersfield returns to #1 most polluted in the nation while Fresno ranks #2, having tied its lowest annual average.

Thirteen of the 26 cities most polluted year-round by particle pollution saw increases over levels in the 2019 report: Bakersfield, CA; Visalia, CA; San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA; Phoenix, AZ; El Centro, CA; Detroit-Warren-Ann Arbor, MI; McAllen-Edinburgh, TX; Philadelphia-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV; Sacramento-Roseville, CA; Shreveport-Bossier City-Minden, LA; Medford-Grants Pass, OR; Chico, CA and St. Louis-St. Charles-Farmington, MO-IL.

Eleven of the 26 most polluted cities had lower year-round particle levels, of which 9 matched (Pittsburgh and Fresno) or newly achieved (Atlanta, Birmingham, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, and Indianapolis) their lowest respective averages ever.  

Of the remaining two cities among the most polluted in the nation by annual particles, Los Angeles, CA had the same level as last year, while Brownsville, TX did not have annual particle pollution data available last year for comparison.

Nine cities among the most polluted for annual particle pollution fail to meet the current national air quality standards. However, evidence shows that no threshold exists for harmful effects from particle pollution—that is, that even levels lower than the official standard are not safe to breathe.

More cities among the most polluted by annual particle levels saw increases than improved in the 2020 report.

Overall, cities in the western United States dominate the list, with 15 cities among the 26 most polluted by annual particles. California continues to claim more places on the list than any other state, with six of the 10 most polluted, including each of the worst five – and six of the nine cities that fail to achieve the national standard. Fairbanks, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Detroit are also among the ten most polluted, with only Detroit achieving the national standard. Beyond cities in western states, the remainder of the most particle-polluted cities all meet the standard and are distributed throughout the Midwest, Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.

Cities with high power plant emissions as well as local, industrial sources continue to show up on the list, including Pittsburgh; Detroit; Cleveland; Philadelphia; Cincinnati; Birmingham; Indianapolis; Shreveport, LA; and Atlanta.

Fortunately, year-round particle pollution continues to decline across most of the nation, unlike the days with high ozone and high short-term particle pollution.

Because of their high numbers and long duration, western wildfires contributed to some of the elevated annual averages in western cities. That is especially true in California and Pacific Northwest communities that experienced major wildfire smoke impacts in 2018.

Did You Know?

  1. Nearly 5 out of 10 people live where the air they breathe earned an F in State of the Air 2020.
  2. 150 million people live in counties that received an F for either ozone or particle pollution in State of the Air 2020.
  3. More than 20.8 million people live in counties that got an F for all three air pollution measures in State of the Air 2020.
  4. Breathing ozone irritates the lungs, resulting in something like a bad sunburn within the lungs.
  5. Breathing in particle pollution can increase the risk of lung cancer, according to the World Health Organization.
  6. Particle pollution can also cause early death and heart attacks, strokes and emergency room visits for people with asthma and cardiovascular disease.
  7. Particles are smaller than 1/30th the diameter of a human hair. When you inhale them, they are small enough to get past the body's natural defenses.
  8. Ozone and particle pollution are both linked to increased risk of lower birth weight in newborns.
  9. Do you live near, or work on or near a busy highway? Pollution from the traffic may put you at greater risk of harm.
  10. People who work or exercise outside face increased risk from the effects of air pollution.
  11. Millions of people are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, including infants, older adults and people with lung diseases like asthma.
  12. People of color and those earning lower incomes are often disproportionately affected by air pollution that put them at higher risk for illnesses.
  13. Air pollution is a serious health threat. It can trigger asthma attacks, harm lung development in children, and can even be deadly.
  14. You can protect your family by checking the air quality forecasts in your community and avoiding exercising or working outdoors when the unhealthy air is expected.
  15. Climate change enhances conditions for ozone to form and makes it harder to keep ozone from forming.
  16. Climate change increases the risk of wildfires that spread particle pollution and ozone in the smoke.
  17. This Administration is trying to roll back or create loopholes in core healthy air protections under the Clean Air Act. The Lung Association opposes these actions that will add pollution to the air we breathe.
  18. Cutting air pollution through the Clean Air Act will prevent at least 230,000 deaths and save $2 trillion annually by 2020.
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