What Do the Most Polluted U.S. Cities Look Like?

By Yessenia Funes Apr 19, 2017

The American Lung Association released its annual State of the Air Report today (April 19). The report looks at air quality from 2013-2015 and found that about 125 million people are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution—a 40 million decrease since last year’s report.

However, that does not mean that all cities around the country are seeing the same level of air pollution reduction. Some are experiencing spikes, particularly when it comes to daily and annual fine particle pollution, which can result from the burning of firewood, trash and fossil fuels. This sort of pollution, per the EPA, can cause early death, cardiovascular harm, respiratory harm, cancer and reproductive and developmental issues.

The three metropolitan areas whose residents are breathing these tiny solid and liquid particles sit in California and are largely Latinx. “Communities of color also may be more likely to live in counties with higher levels of pollution,” the report states. “Non-Hispanic [B]lacks and Hispanics were more likely to live in counties that had worse problems with particle pollution, researchers found in a 2011 analysis.”

While California is hailed as a leader against climate change and environmental degradation, the state still sees much of the same environmental issues that affected Los Angeles in the late 20th century, in the form of smog and severe ozone and particle pollution.

These are the most polluted cities in the U.S.

Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, California
This area, comprised of three cities that are geographically close to each other, sits in the heart of the state, south of the Bay Area. Their Latinx residents average over half of their combined populations. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford tops the report’s list of most polluted cities by “year-round particle pollution,” and sits at No. 2 for the most with “short-term particle pollution.” Since 2000, these cities have had 15.9 more days of 24-hour particle pollution. Since last year’s report, their annual particle pollution levels have spiked.

Bakersfield, California
Just 50 miles south of the Visalia-Porterville-Hanford metropolitan area, Bakersfield’s Latinx population is 45 percent. While it’s had 21 fewer days of daily particle pollution since 2000, the city has seen a spike since the American Lung Association’s 2014 report that looked at 2010-2012 air quality levels. This is also true for its annual particle pollution. Bakersfield is No. 1 for short-term particle pollution. Two coal power plants closed in 2015, highlighting the type of industry that has been historically attracted to the area. The city is known for its oil refineries with Kern County, where it sits, being dubbed the “oil capital of California.”

Fresno-Madera, California
These two cities are the furthest north of the ones at the top of the list. In average, Latinxs make up 62 percent of their population, with Madera being almost entirely Latinx. A large portion of their populations are also foreign-born—more so than California’s two other pollution epicenters. This is the only area of the three, however, that hasn’t seen that particle pollution number spike. The region’s daily and annual particle pollution has been dropping, but it continues to be one of the country’s most polluted cities.