New study says nearly half of the country is breathing dirty, unhealthy air

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If you're in the United States, the odds of you breathing polluted air are on the rise. According to the latest edition of the State of the Air report published by the American Lung Association, nearly half of the country's population now live in regions where the air is "placing their health and lives at risk." Perhaps most troubling: the study found that about nine million more people are having their lungs filled with dirty air than in last year's report.

While the report is called the State of the Air 2020, it accounts for changes in air quality and pollution that occurred between 2016 and 2018. It found that more cities had high days of ozone and short-term particle pollution than in years prior, and many cities saw increased levels of year-round particle pollution.

The reasons for the uptick cannot be pinned on a single cause, but there is one overlaying trend that plays a significant role in the increasing levels of air pollution: climate change. The report noted that the years examined were three of the five hottest on record. The hotter temperatures led to drier summers, which can spark events like wildfires. It's no coincidence that eight of California's 20 most destructive wildfires all happened during the time period examined by the American Lung Association. Those fires, in addition to destroying land and costing lives, also poured particles and pollutants like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide into the air.

Of course, the increase in air pollution cannot simply be pinned on wildfires burning out of control. The American Lung Association also mapped an increase in the number of miles driven and electricity consumed per year — both of which typically consume and burn fossil fuels, which result in increased levels of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, which only further the climate change problem. These problems are likely only to be exacerbated by the Trump administration's ongoing attempts to demolish any and every Obama-era environmental protection, including those that aimed to improve air quality.

The worsening condition of America's air means more than just smoggier cities and less clear skies. Air pollution can have serious negative health effects on those who are exposed to it. The American Lung Association warned that air particles and pollutants can play a role in causing conditions like lung cancer, asthma attacks, heart disease, cardiovascular damage and developmental and reproductive harm. Studies have also linked air pollution to increased risk of depression.

Air pollution has already been linked to as many as 30,000 deaths per year in the United States — most of which occur in communities of color that have a higher exposure rate. That toll could be set to increase this year, as communities that experience higher rates of air pollution have also seen more deaths related to coronavirus. So don't let the temporarily clearer skies fool you — our air quality is getting worse.