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California Heavin': America's Most Polluted City

Posted Jun 26 2013 7:23pm

Downtown Los Angeles Pollution. The word gets thrown around so much these days that we wouldn't blame you if the term has lost some of its sting. What specifically makes one city more polluted than the other? Big-name cities get the obvious knock, but the rankings for everyone else can seem haphazardly gathered at times, their data meshing and looming into one giant, confused mass — much like the smog that hovers overhead.

So if you guessed the country's most polluted city is in California, congratulations, you're right. The Golden State takes 22 of the top 30 cities among three categories.

But if you guessed it's L.A., well, stay confused.

The American Lung Association's annual State of the Air Campaign for 2013 reported that the Commander-In-Chief for both year-round pollution and short-term pollution is none other than Bakersfield, California.

Thanks to a combination of oil production, agricultural practices, and the largest population growth of any American city in the past decade, Bakersfield ranks highest in both annual average of particle concentration (year-round) and in particle spikes averaged over a 24-hour period (short-term).

The City of Angels doesn't fall into the top three in either of these groups. Merced, CA, and Fresno-Madera, CA, follow in year-round pollution, while Fresno-Madera and Hanford-Corcoran go one-two, respectively, in the short term.

L.A. still takes #1 for ozone pollution, which occurs when molecules of three oxygen atoms (the ozone) attack human lung tissue. Ozone in the upper atmosphere means protection from harmful UV rays. Ozone at ground level means Al Gore book signings and ice-cubed crawl space for polar bears.

All this categorizing might leave us more confused than when we started, so let's share some numbers Bakersfield Sunset that are anything but vague in their implications: According to the American Lung Association, over 119 million people in the U.S. live in cities that received a big fat "F" in grades for ozone levels. Almost 15% of the country lives in places with too-dangerous levels of particle pollution. How dangerous is too dangerous? Try increased rates across the board for heart attacks, difficult breathing, lower birth weight, strokes, cardiovascular-related emergency visits, disease, and premature deaths. 

That smog overhead sure looks crystal-clear.

Thankfully, you can take action now to reduce your pollutant output. You can drive more fuel-efficient cars , sure, but did you know that burning wood is the largest residential source of particle pollution? Or that less than one-third of U.S. counties have pollution-detecting monitors? No gesture is too small in making a big difference. 

Now that we think about it, making a big difference gets thrown around a lot these days, too. But just because something's often repeated doesn't mean it's not important.

--Image by iStockphoto/MattGush

--Image by iStockphoto/Vontetzel

 Davis Jones is an editorial intern at Sierra. His love for the outdoors began when he stepped on a fish hook as a 12-year-old and cried, in a burst of epiphanic clarity, "I'm too young to die." He attends the University of San Diego and enjoys camping, hiking, backpacking, and other activities that more or less benefit the mosquito population.

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