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Gasping for air: 127M in U.S. at risk of smog, pollen

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/12/2017 Doyle Rice
Smog covers midtown Manhattan in New York City on July 10, 2007. Four out of 10 Americans live in “double whammy” counties with unhealthy levels of smog and pollen-producing ragweed. © Adam Rountree, AP Smog covers midtown Manhattan in New York City on July 10, 2007. Four out of 10 Americans live in “double whammy” counties with unhealthy levels of smog and pollen-producing ragweed.

About 40% Americans live in counties where a "double whammy" of unhealthy levels of smog and ragweed pollen — both tied to climate change — combine to threaten respiratory health, a Natural Resources Defense Council report released Tuesday finds.

"Today, 127 million Americans live where ragweed and ozone can threaten their next breath," said Kim Knowlton, senior scientist at the NRDC, who oversaw the project. "This health threat will just get worse if we don’t curb climate change soon."

Climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, both worsens ozone pollution and extends the ragweed season, the report said.

The late summer and early autumn season for ragweed pollen is now almost a month longer in many parts of the U.S. than 20 years ago, and that trend is likely to continue, the NRDC said.

Smog forms on warm, sunny days and is made worse from the chemicals that come out of vehicle tailpipes and from power plant and industrial smokestacks. It worsens respiratory illnesses such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Plus, allergies alone can be life-threatening, especially in children, said Perry Sheffield, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai in New York.

In addition, air pollution from smog and allergens doesn't just impact the lungs, it also affects the brain, heart and skin. "Clean air is so important for human health," Sheffield said.

Ragweed was selected for this report instead of other pollens, such as tree and grass, because more people are allergic to it than to all the others combined, Knowlton said. Also, ragweed comes out toward late summer when temperatures, and thus smog levels, are highest.

The report includes a special focus on 15 of the worst jurisdictions and states where both smog and pollen are especially bad. Those, listed in order starting with the worst, include: the District of Columbia, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Utah, Ohio, Arizona, Michigan, Massachusetts, Delaware, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Indiana and Kansas.

“It’s ironic and tragic that the nation’s key ‘hot spot’ is Washington, D.C., the very place where wrongheaded policy threatens to make climate and pollution problems worse by the day," said Juanita Constible of the NRDC. Instead of dismantling the Clean Power Plan, the federal government should focus on limiting smog, curbing power plant pollution and increasing vehicle fuel efficiency, she added. 

The group said governments at the state and local levels should also work to ramp up the use of clean energy and diminish smog levels, among other actions. 

The National Climate Assessment, a federal report released in 2014, also warned both ozone levels and allergens would likely worsen due to climate change. The NRDC report is a follow-up to previous air quality reports released in 2007 and 2015

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