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How Clean Is Our Air?48:18
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In this March 14, 2014 file photo, a layer of smog covers the city of Brussels.  (Geert Vanden Wijngaert, file/AP)
In this March 14, 2014 file photo, a layer of smog covers the city of Brussels. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert, file/AP)
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With Meghna Chakrabarti

Two big reports on air pollution. One looks at the world and the other zeroes in on California. We'll look at the big takeaways, and more.

Ledge King, USA Today reporter covering the EPA. (@LedgeKing)

Daniel Greenbaum, President of the Health Effects Institute.

Janice Nolen, American Lung Association's Assistant Vice President of National Policy.

Mayor Robert Garcia, Mayor of Long Beach, California. (@RobertGarciaLB)

Highlights (lightly edited):

On the global picture of our air

Greenbaum: "When you look at what the levels of air pollution are in every country across the world and where the people are... you see that 95 percent of the population of the earth is living in places with air above those safe standards.

There's extensive evidence that air pollution can affect both respiratory health, it can exacerbate asthma, but of more concern is it can really exacerbate and cause premature death from things like stroke, heart attack, and even lung cancer."

On burning fuels indoors

Greenbaum: "There is improvement. What we see is that as countries improve their economic status, more and more of the households shift to cleaner and cleaner fuels. They might shift to LPG (Liquefied petroleum gas) eventually they might shift to electricity. So we are seeing an improvement, but it still means there is something like 800,000 people dying prematurely from indoor air in India."

"We do still have far too many people who live in areas that literally can shorten their life, where the air quality is a health risk and even a life risk."

Daniel Greenbaum

On how the U.S. ranks compared to the rest of the world

Nolen: "We have made a lot of progress thanks to the Clean Air Act. That's been our tool to help reduce air pollution. [We] have seen, over time, improvements — but we do still have far too many people who live in areas that literally can shorten their life, where the air quality is a health risk and even a life risk. And definitely, more than four in ten Americans live in a community that got an F for one or more pollutants."

On where the "bad air" is around the country

Nolen: "It's a lot of places around the country. California certainly has, and historically has had, a huge number of places where they have unhealthy air. But they're not alone. Number one on our list for year-round particle pollution this year was Fairbanks, Alaska — not a place you normally think of as having unhealthy air. But because of the woodsmoke problem that they've got up there, and improved monitoring, we now know that they have not only a short-term problem with it, but a year-round problem with particles. Other parts of the country that have lots of pollution include urban areas, but they can also include rural areas — it just depends on the community. We've got several counties, for example, where oil and gas extractions [are] happening where they're very rural counties, but they have unhealthy levels of ozone."

In this Nov. 9, 2017 photo, an Indian boy uses a handkerchief to protect his face as school children and parents await transport surrounded by morning smog on the outskirts of New Delhi, India. (R S Iyer/AP)
In this Nov. 9, 2017 photo, an Indian boy uses a handkerchief to protect his face as school children and parents await transport surrounded by morning smog on the outskirts of New Delhi, India. (R S Iyer/AP)

On how climate change plays into air pollution:

Greenbaum: "Ozone can travel long distances. The precursors from China can find their way to the U.S. But also it's the one air pollutant — because it is formed during hot, humid days — that has been really closely tied to changing temperatures and the other changes we're expecting from climate change."

Nolen: "2016 was the second-hottest year on record. And we saw a lot of places had spikes, they had many days that had high ozone that they hadn't had before. And the temperature definitely played a role in that."

On the pollution in Los Angeles and Long Beach

Garcia: "Most of the pollution that we have is really related to the port complex. The complex that's there in Long Beach and Los Angeles is the largest container complex for ports anywhere in the U.S. and about 40% of all of America's goods come out of Los Angeles or Long Beach. Because of that, when you had truck pollution, and the ships, the terminal process, it really has created an issue for the whole region. It's not just the ports, of course, it's the ingress and egress of trucks that are coming in and out of the ports that are coming into the freeways and to the truck systems.

Fortunately, that's begun to change. If you look at air pollution today versus what it was 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, there is dramatic reduction."

On the health effects of air pollution in CA

Garcia: "There's no question that we have larger rates of asthma. More children have issues as related to health, particularly if you're in that area. And so we as a community have been pushing for years to clean up the ports.

It is costly. The cost of not being sustainable, in our opinion, is more costly when it comes to lives and health than the cost that businesses can have to invest with us to clean the ports."

From The Reading List: 

The Guardian: More than 95% of world's population breathe dangerous air, major study finds -- "Cities are home to an increasing majority of the world’s people, exposing billions to unsafe air, particularly in developing countries, but in rural areas the risk of indoor air pollution is often caused by burning solid fuels. One in three people worldwide faces the double whammy of unsafe air both indoors and out. The report by the Health Effects Institute used new findings such as satellite data and better monitoring to estimate the numbers of people exposed to air polluted above the levels deemed safe by the World Health Organisation. This exposure has made air pollution the fourth highest cause of death globally, after high blood pressure, diet and smoking, and the greatest environmental health risk."

USA Today: California has eight of 10 most polluted U.S. cities -- "Eight of the USA's 10 most-polluted cities, in terms of ozone pollution, are in California, according to the American Lung Association's annual "State of the Air" report, released Wednesday. The Los Angeles/Long Beach area took the dubious distinction of being the nation's most ozone-polluted city as it has for nearly the entire 19-year history of the report."

A couple of new reports on air quality. And the news is not good. Ninety-five percent of the world’s population lives with unhealthy air. In the U.S., California is home to the top cities with the most ozone polluted air. Climate change is making the problem worse. So is the breakneck pace of development in China and India. The Trump administration has been quietly rolling back air quality rules, saying the air is cleaner than it was in the 1970s, and regulations are blocking economic and job growth.

This hour, On Point: Questioning the quality of the air we breathe.

-- Meghna Chakrabarti

This program aired on April 23, 2018.

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