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Chicago Area’s Air Pollution Is Among The Worst In The US, New Analysis Finds

Metro Chicago ranks 16th in smog pollution and 22nd in year-round particle pollution out of more than 200 metro areas studied, according to the American Lung Association.

Traffic bends around at the junction of I-90 and I-94 in Irving Park as a CTA Blue Line train arrives at Montrose on Dec. 16, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — The Chicago metro area’s air remains among the most polluted in the country, though its air pollution metrics have generally improved since 2000, according to a new analysis.

Chicago-area residents’ annual exposures to smog and particle pollution are among the 25 worst in the nation, the American Lung Association’s 2022 State of the Air report found. The metro area stretches across 19 counties in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

The national report analyzed air monitor data from 2018-2020 in more than 200 US metropolitan areas.

The Chicago metro area ranked 16th out of 226 in average days per year with high ozone, commonly known as smog. Ozone gas “is a powerful lung irritant” that can cause breathing problems in the short term and asthma, COPD and damage to bodily systems in the long run, according to the report.

Cook County in particular received an “F” grade for smog pollution with a weighted average of 16 days per year. That’s five times more than the cutoff for a “D” grade, and a slight increase over the 2017-2019 average of 15.5 days.

“If you live in Cook County, the air you breathe may put your health at risk,” the report reads.

Since 1996, the county’s worst three-year stretch for smog pollution was 2001-2003, when residents faced an average of 38 days per year with high ozone levels. Its best stretch was from 2013-2015, with an average of 6.2 days per year.

Los Angeles ranked as the most smog-polluted metro area in this year’s report.

The Chicago area ranked 22nd out of 202 for year-round exposure to fine particle pollution. Fine particles, like metals or combustion particles, are most often created by burning wood or fossil fuels and can get trapped in the lung’s air sacs, the report reads.

Particles can also be coarse, like dust or pollen; or ultrafine, which pass through lung tissue into the bloodstream. There’s “a clear relationship” between regular exposure to particulate matter and death, according to the report.

This was the fourth straight reporting period in which Cook County received a passing grade for year-round particle pollution.

Residents of Bakersfield, California’s metro area faced the highest year-round exposure to fine particles, according to the report.

Metro Chicago ranked 75th out of 221 in short-term fine particle pollution, which tracked the average number of days per year in which residents faced high levels of particles in the air.

Cook County residents faced high particle levels less than one day per year — good enough for a “B” grade, according to the report.

That’s down drastically from the county’s average of 25.2 days per year from 2000-2002, and marks the county’s fourth straight reporting period with a passing grade.

The Fresno, California metro area had the highest ranking for short-term particle pollution.

Nearly 3 million people of color, 1.1 million children, 800,000 seniors, 650,000 people in poverty and 420,000 people with asthma are among the “groups at risk” from Cook County’s air pollution, according to the report.

The Chicago Department of Public Health’s Air Quality and Health Report, released in 2020, found South and West side communities “bisected by major highways with high concentrations of industry” are overburdened with pollution.

In order to improve air quality, city and county governments should support walking, biking and transit infrastructure; work to address the impacts of climate change; purchase zero-emission vehicles for city fleets; and use renewable energy in local government operations, the American Lung Association recommended.

State-level governments should phase out fossil fuels, increase air quality monitoring and adopt zero-emissions standards for vehicles similar to California’s, the report reads.

The Chicago-based association also urged Congress to pass the stalled Build Back Better Act — which includes funding for zero-emission electricity and transportation — while urging the Environmental Protection Agency to enact stronger standards for vehicle emissions, particulate matter and smog.

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