The most polluted cities in the United States have been in the suburbs and the industrial Midwest for decades, but now, a new study suggests the pollution in these communities is on the rise.
The study, published online Thursday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, shows that in the last decade, cities with the worst air quality have become more populated, and the pollution is spreading farther and faster.
The researchers found that in some cities, residents in the inner-ring suburbs are more likely to live in areas with more pollution.
That trend was even more pronounced in metropolitan areas, where pollution is particularly concentrated.
“We can now say that air quality is increasing, but it’s moving away from places where we’d normally expect it to,” said lead author and epidemiologist Jennifer Rauh, a research associate at the University of Illinois.
“And we can see it moving further and further away from where we expect it.
And the problem is, we’re not doing a good job of trying to slow it down.”
A recent poll showed that most Americans have not been convinced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that pollution is a health problem, even though pollution is the No. 1 cause of premature death in the country.
Some residents and advocates of environmental justice are worried that the trend is being driven by political interests, not scientific facts.
The findings of the new study also suggest that the U,S.
is on track to have the second-highest number of premature deaths per capita in the world, after China.
The U.K. and Australia also have higher air quality than the U., but they’re not nearly as polluted.
“It’s a bit of a shock to me to see that the United Kingdom and Australia have much higher air-quality numbers than the United State,” said Daniel Hirschhorn, a University of Southern California professor who has studied air quality issues.
“I don’t know how much of that is due to politics or the economics of things, but I do think that the economic incentive for cities to be very, very clean is really important.”
The authors found that the pollution-adjusted mortality rates in the two countries were similar in 2007 and 2011.
They also found that some of the pollution that was driving higher mortality rates was likely to have been from other sources.
“In many cities in both countries, the health impacts of pollution were quite similar,” said study co-author Elizabeth Kohn, an epidemiologist at the CDC.
“But the magnitude of the effects were very different.”
The researchers say that their results could help inform the development of more effective policies to combat pollution.
“This is really a wake-up call for cities that, yes, the air pollution is out there, but if you don’t take action, you’re going to be worse off,” said Hirschthorn.
“The longer the United Sates can delay implementation of a comprehensive plan to address air pollution, the more pollution will continue to be released.”