The US Cities With the Most Polluted Air You Can Breathe

In the American Lung Association’s 2018 report on air quality, there was good and bad news for U.S. cities. On the positive side, the situation with general particle pollution improved over the past few years.

However, ozone pollution got worse across America since the 2017 report. Overall, 41% of the U.S. population lives in cities with unhealthy air. According to the report, ozone pollution will only get worse as the temperatures continue rising every year.

For now, the situation seems bad enough. To come up with the worst of 2018, we pulled the American Lung Association’s dirtiest air year-round. (Many were also among the worst for ozone and short-term toxin spikes.) Here are the 15 cities with the most polluted air you can breathe.

15. Houston

Houston, Texas, USA

The air is like a ‘sunburn’. | Sean Pavone/iStock/Getty Images

  • If particle pollution doesn’t get you, Houston’s ozone pollution might.

The American Lung Association compares ozone pollution to “a sunburn” for the respiratory system. In addition to high particulate pollution you’ll find in Houston-metro air, more dangerous ozone levels (11th) exist here as well.

That leaves residents vulnerable to both short-term (asthma attacks, coughing jags) and long-term (heart attacks, strokes, and lung cancer) effects. Overall, Houston air quality has improved but remains poor.

Next: The Motor City can do a number on your lungs.

14. Detroit

Detroit Skyline during the evening

There has been some improvement thankfully. | Steven_Kriemadis/iStock/Getty Images

  • Toxins abound in Detroit’s metro area.

There’s nothing clean about the smoke pouring out of a Mustang tailpipe, and area auto plants make the situation worse. Like many other cities, Detroit has improved significantly since 2000.

However, ozone levels still rank as dangerous, and overall particle pollution isn’t far off. Children under 18 face the greatest risks in the Detroit-Ann Arbor-Warren area.

Next: Everyday pollution in Indianapolis is bad, and on some days it’s truly terrible.

13. Indianapolis

Indianapolis skyline

There are periods of serious risk. | iStock/Getty Images

  • In addition to everyday pollution, Indianapolis has 24-hour periods that present serious health risks.

During the year, some cities have spikes in pollution on certain days. These events usually happen on warm days and pose danger to residents. The Indianapolis-Carmel-Muncie area has several days like this every year.

Meanwhile, everyday particle pollution is bad and there has been a spike in ozone pollution since 2013. Indianapolis residents can expect to breathe dirty air as long as area coal plants and other toxic industries are in play.

Next: In Philadelphia, improvements over the past 10 years still haven’t solved the pollution problem.

12. Philadelphia


The public transportation system isn’t great. | iStock/Getty Images

  • Overall, local industry and a poor subway system make Philadelphia air dangerous to breathe.

If you wonder about the differences between Philadelphia and New York City, start with the subway system. While New York’s covers four major boroughs, Philadelphia’s is limited.

That makes Philly a car-first town, and residents will have to deal with the consequences for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, refineries and smokestacks covering the Philadelphia-Camden waterfront pump massive amount of toxins into the air.

Overall, the Philly metro area recorded dangerous levels of particle (12th) and ozone pollution (24th).

Next: This Midwestern city is even worse than the old East Coast metropolises.

11. Cleveland

downtown Cleveland by the Veterans Memorial Bridge

There is dangerously high particle pollution. | PapaBear/iStock/Getty Images

  • In the Cleveland area, bad ozone and worse particle pollution landed the city in 11th place.

If you wanted to look on the bright side, the air in the Cleveland metro area has improved greatly since 1995. However, there’s still plenty to worry about.

For starters, annual particle pollution remains dangerously high. Meanwhile, ozone pollution has gotten worse over the past few years.

Next: In the Bay Area, it’s all bad news on the air pollution front.

10. San Francisco

San Francisco

It’s been getting worse. | Heyengel/iStock/Getty Images

  • The Bay Area ranked among the 15 worst cities in every pollution category,

Whether you go by annual pollution (10th), high ozone levels (13th), or 24-hour pollution spikes (6th), Bay Area cities feature the most polluted air in America. In fact, the situation has gotten worse over the past decade.

That’s because rising temperatures lead to both more wildfires and a higher number of bad ozone days. In short, climate change has hit San Francisco, Oakland, and other area cities hard.

Next: A massive spike in 24-hour pollution came to Lancaster in recent years.

9. Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Northwest Lancaster, PA cityscape

Short-term pollution is the biggest threat. | Dillon_Naber_Cruz/iStock/Getty Images

  • In Lancaster, short-term pollution has become the biggest concern.

Looking back at recent decades, you see how particle pollution and poor ozone levels were once the biggest danger to Lancaster residents. As of 2018, 24-hour pollution spikes now pose the biggest threat.

The American Lung Association attributes the huge jump in the Lancaster area since 2007 to higher average temperatures.

Next: West of Lancaster, the air is even more polluted.

8. Pittsburgh

Skyline of downtown Pittsburgh

Their air quality has declined since 2013. | f11photo/iStock/Getty Images

  • While things have improved in Pittsburgh, the city still has some of America’s most polluted air.

To get an idea how bad the air was in Pittsburgh, just look at the charts dating back to 2000. Then, it was normal to have 60-65 days of dangerous pollution levels per year.

The good news is that’s down to “just” 10; the bad news is that still ranks Pittsburgh among the most polluted metro areas. Worse, the air quality here has actually deteriorated since 2013.

Next: A huge spike in 24-hour dangerous pollution levels should concern residents of El Centro.

7. El Centro, California

Things are off the charts. | David McNew/Getty Images

  • The rise in temporary high-pollution events here is off the charts.

If you want to see a place hit hard by global warming, go to Imperial County east of San Diego. In the town of El Centro, the number of bad pollution days spiked six-fold (from 2 per year to 12 per year) between 2011-16.

Meanwhile, general particle pollution has also risen since 2008. With cars powering all area passenger transportation and diesel trucks streaming across the border into El Centro, the air quality has little chance of improving.

Next: East of the Bay Area, air quality is even worse.

6. Modesto, California

Modesto California

Things have been getting worse. | Carl Skaggs/Wikimedia Commons

  • Air quality in Modesto-Merced area is getting worse.

Go east of the Bay Area and you’ll find the air quality even worse. Alarmingly, the number of high-pollution days in the Merced-Modesto area has doubled since 2005.

The spike in wildfires and general warming trend reversed the progress the area made in the early 2000s.

Next: Even after cutting high-pollution days in half, Fresno air remains among America’s most polluted.

5. Fresno

Best Little City in the USA welcome sign on Van Ness Avenue

It’s better but still not great. | gnagel/iStock / Getty Images Plus

  • The Fresno area’s air quality has improved, but it’s still among the most polluted.

There are two major takeaways from looking at air quality stats for Fresno over the past decades:

  1. Air quality here is much, much better than it was in 2000.
  2. It’s still so polluted there is nothing to celebrate.

In 2000, Fresno-Madero residents could expect a frightening 70 days of dangerously polluted air every year. Even now that it’s down to 30, that makes it the third-worst in America.

Meanwhile, the region ranks fourth for ozone pollution and fifth for worst air overall.

Next: Huge improvements in L.A. have not been enough.

4. Los Angeles

smog in los angeles

The L.A. smog is infamous. | Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

  • Even with a 90% improvement since 2000, L.A. still has too many high-pollution days.

If you want to see progress in air quality, look no further than Los Angeles, In 2000, area residents dealt with an average of 110 dangerously polluted days per year. Over the past few years, the number shrank to 12.

Even with that 90% improvement, L.A. still ranks seventh-worst in this area. Meanwhile, it’s the worst city in America for days of ozone pollution (150, down 25% since 2000). L.A. also has high annual particle pollution despite cutting the concentration in half over the past decades.

Next: You will find a hard time finding air more polluted than Bakersfield’s.

3. Bakersfield

Bakersfield, California

California is struggling overall. | City of Bakersfield via Facebook

  • Multiple bad trends are at work in Bakersfield air quality.

With at least 40 high-particle-pollution days per year, no U.S. city ranks worse than Bakersfield. Meanwhile, the Central California town is No. 2 for days of high ozone pollution and third overall.

Looking at the stats, you see Bakersfield trending worse for particle pollution, and you can blame rising temperatures for much of it.

Next: Between Bakersfield and Fresno, this California region has even more polluted air.

2. Visalia, California

Visalia California

It’s surrounded by polluted cities. | Capricorn90/Wikimedia Commons

  • Particle pollution rose an alarming 30% in just five years.

The Visalia metro area is nestled between Bakersfield and Fresno, and it has the distinction of having the most polluted air in the continental U.S. It ranks second-worst in all America for high-particle-pollution days and third for ozone pollution.

If that’s not bad enough, residents should be aware it’s getting worse. Since 2012, air pollution levels here rose 30%.

Next: You’ll find America’s most polluted air in Alaska.

1. Fairbanks, Alaska

Church in Fairbanks Alaska just before sunrise.

It has serious particle pollution. | lippyjr/iStock/Getty Images

  • While it’s the cleanest air in terms of ozone quality, Fairbanks featured the most particle pollution of any U.S. city.

Ozone levels remain sound in sparsely populated Alaska, so residents don’t have to worry there. However, Fairbanks features the highest levels of particle pollution anywhere in America.

Since 2007, the air quality has deteriorated so rapidly it should concern everyone. The number of high-particle-pollution days soared from 3 to 25 in that 10-year period.

So why is Fairbanks air getting so bad so quickly? Apparently, wood stove and hydronic heater pollution have caught up with the city, leading to an EPA designation as “serious” in 2017.

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