This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Within five miles of Kim Gaddy’s home in the South Ward of Newark, N.J., lies the nation’s third-busiest shipping port, 13th-busiest airport and roughly a half dozen major roadways. All told, transportation experts say, the area where Gaddy and her neighbours live sees an average of roughly 20,000 truck trips each day.

Researchers cite the exhaust produced by all of that road travel as a major reason why asthma rates among Newark residents are about twice the national average.

“You hear of Newark every time somebody gets killed, it’s a homicide, but asthma is the silent killer — and that is a real health injustice,” said Gaddy, 60, who founded the South Ward Environmental Alliance, a local climate change advocacy group. “You know, asthma, heart attacks, respiratory illnesses — these are the things that harm our community.”

Kim Gaddy, founder of the South Ward Environmental Alliance, said asthma is a “silent killer” in her hometown of Newark, N.J. Gaddy and her three children were all diagnosed with asthma; her eldest son died of a heart attack in 2021 at the age of 32. Photo courtesy of South Ward Environmental Alliance

The South Ward is hardly an outlier. A new report by the American Lung Association shows how polluted air continues to place the health of millions of other Americans in jeopardy.

The lung association’s latest “State of the Air” report — an annual survey of air quality nationwide — found that more than a third of all Americans, or about 131 million people, are living in communities with unhealthy levels of air pollution.

The report also found that from 2020 to 2022, the nation experienced more days with air quality that would be classified by the association as hazardous than at any other time over the last quarter century.

While acknowledging the efficacy of a series of clean air measures that have been enacted over the last 50 years, officials with the association said that the report also underscored how the warming planet continues to worsen levels of unhealthy air.

In its annual “State of the Air” report, the American Lung Association noted that while poor air quality is pervasive, communities of colour are more than twice as likely to experience the worst impacts. #VehicleExhaustEmissions

“We have seen impressive progress in cleaning up air pollution over the last 25 years, thanks in large part to the Clean Air Act,” Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the association, said in a statement. “However, when we started this report, our team never imagined that 25 years in the future, more than 130 million people would still be breathing unhealthy air. Climate change is causing more dangerous air pollution. Every day there are unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution means that someone — a child, grandparent, uncle or mother — struggles to breathe. We must do more to ensure everyone has clean air.”

The association’s report measured three types of air pollution: short-term particle pollution, such as the smoke and other particles from wildfires and other brief air quality changes; year-round particle pollution, such as concentrated pollution from industrial plants, vehicles and other sources; and ozone pollution.

Wildfires are making things worse and creating more short-term spikes in air pollution, said Laura Kate Bender, a national vice-president at the association.

“That’s not the only source of particulate matter air pollution, but when it comes to what’s different, wildfire smoke is really the big driver of those spikes in particles that we’re seeing in these places,” said Bender. “And it’s the driver of those days on which it is very unhealthy or hazardous to breathe where we’re hitting this purple and maroon levels, which we’ve seen more of this year than ever in the history of the report.”

She added: “That is why we’re able to say that we’re really seeing the impacts of climate change showing up in this year’s report results.”

The report found that 12 per cent of Americans live in areas that received failing grades for all three types of pollution. The data also showed that people of colour are more than twice as likely than their white counterparts to live in communities with poor air quality in all of those measures.

For Gaddy, who is African-American, the report’s findings confirm what she and her neighbours in Newark’s predominantly Black South Ward have experienced for years. Gaddy and her three children were all diagnosed with asthma; her eldest child died of a heart attack in 2021 at the age of 32.

“It’s just the cumulative impacts of pollution is what is harming us,” Gaddy said. “And so, unfortunately, that’s what happens in our city.”

The New York/Newark metropolitan area has 1.8 million adults with asthma and 370,000 children with the disease, according to the report.

Researchers are hopeful that a series of new auto emissions standards that were announced last month by the Biden administration might significantly reduce some forms of particle pollution.

Under the newly proposed standard, by 2032, 56 per cent of all new vehicles that are sold should be electric; the proposal also calls for increases in plug-in hybrid vehicles or other partially electric cars and more efficient gasoline-powered cars.

“We’ve seen the Environmental Protection Agency finalize a number of new standards to clean up the air pollution and address climate change, with more on the way,” said Bender.

“We’ve seen the tighter particulate matter standard. We’ve seen strong measures to reduce emissions from future cars and future trucks. We’ve seen measures to reduce methane and volatile organic compounds from the oil and gas industry,” she said. “And we’re calling on the administration to get across the finish line to more items on their to-do list.”

Bender said that the association hopes that the EPA will update the national ozone standard, which has not been revised since 2015.

“Sometimes people don’t realize that poor air can affect them pretty drastically,” said Amit “Bobby” Mahajan, a national spokesperson for the lung association. “We know that there are asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, but we also see increases in preterm birth, cognitive impairment and development of lung cancers in individuals who have high exposure to ozone and particle pollution.

“So not only is it important just to provide clean air, but providing clean air minimizes the number of exposures we have to these serious diseases and honestly reduces our risk of having deadly underlying conditions,” said Mahajan, who also serves as the director of interventional pulmonology at Inova Health System in Northern Virginia.

Gaddy said that she’s confident that federal officials will soon act on the recommendations of researchers and other experts to help alleviate the asthma crisis in her city.

“We know that eventually, our communities will be healed and restored to the level that they should be,” added Gaddy. “And that just because of our zip code or the colour of our skin, our communities won’t continue to be these sacrifice zones.”

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