New report: More than one in six Americans experienced greater than 100 days of polluted air in 2020

Media Contacts
Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

‘Trouble in the Air’ study shows where particulate matter and ozone pollution are harming human health in the U.S.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

PHILADELPHIA – More than one in six Americans, 58.4 million people, suffered through more than 100 days of elevated air pollution in 2020, according to a new report from Environment America Research & Policy Center, Frontier Group and U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Air pollution increases the risk of premature death, asthma attacks, cancer and other adverse health impacts. 

“Air pollution can be just as dangerous for our health as smoking,” said Wendy Wendlandt, president of Environment America Research & Policy Center. “We learned in the 1960s that cigarettes were bad for us and we started to do something about it. Today, air pollution causes hundreds of thousands of people who never took up smoking to die too early each year. It’s past time to do something about that.” 

In the report, Trouble in the Air: Millions of Americans Breathed Polluted Air in 2020, researchers reviewed Environmental Protection Agency air pollution records from across the country, covering 591 different geographic areas. The analysis, which looks at the most recent data available,  focuses on ground-level ozone and fine particulate pollution, which are harmful pollutants that come primarily from burning fossil fuels such as coal, diesel, gasoline and methane gas, and from wildfires. 

Researchers also produced a digital map of bad air days across the country in 2020. With the COVID pandemic in full swing, last year included periods in which people spent more time at home and drove their gas-powered vehicles less — yet bad air quality persisted. 

“One of the top sources of air pollution is transportation,” said Matt Casale, Environment campaigns director with U.S. PIRG Education Fund. “As our driving has picked up in 2021, you can be sure our vehicle pollution has kept pace. If we want to make a dent in these terrible numbers and save lives, we have got to wean ourselves off of burning fossil fuels to get around.”

 Western wildfires also caused spikes in air pollution in 2020. Global warming increases the frequency of such wildfires and droughts, making them more severe while extending the fire season. For example, the 2020 Creek Fire burned nearly a third of the Sierra National Forest for months, injuring 26 people and destroying 856 buildings  When the fire began in September that year, a nearby air quality monitor in Mono County, California reported pollution that was literally off the charts, being described by the EPA as “beyond the Air Quality Index.”

“On my birthday this summer in New York City, I could see, smell and taste the smoke that came all the way from California and Oregon to the east coast,” said Bryn Huxley-Reicher, policy analyst with Frontier Group and co-author of the report. “Air pollution affects our hearts, our lungs and our brains, and it’ll get even worse unless we reduce the dust and the smoke and the smog that choke our air and cook the planet.”

While the report finds that air pollution problems persist, the solutions for cleaning our air are readily achievable. The report recommends that policymakers electrify our buildings, equipment and transportation; transition to clean renewable energy; and strengthen federal air quality standards. Congress is considering a bipartisan infrastructure bill that will jumpstart cleaner transportation projects, including $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations. Congress is also considering the Build Back Better Act, which could create even larger investments in climate solutions that can also clean our air.

“When the health of a family member is threatened, we do what it takes to save thAem,” said Morgan Folger, Destination: Zero Carbon Campaign director with Environment America Research & Policy Center and co-author of the report. “Every child, grandparent and American should be able to breathe clean air. Our leaders need to act swiftly to zero out pollution from all aspects of our lives. When they do, we’ll all breathe easier.”