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The Most Polluted Cities in the U.S. in 2024

The 30 Largest U.S. Hydropower Plants

 

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution causes 7 million deaths annually and could cost the global economy between $18–25 trillion in annual welfare costs by 2060, or roughly 4–6% of world GDP.

And with predictions that 7 in 10 people will make their homes in urban centers by mid-century, cities are fast becoming one of the frontlines in the global effort to clear the air.

In this visualization, we use 2024 data from the State of the Air report from the American Lung Association to show the most polluted cities in the United States.

What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is a complex mixture of gases, particles, and liquid droplets and can have a variety of sources, including wildfires and cookstoves in rural areas, and road dust and diesel exhaust in cities.

There are a few kinds of air pollution that are especially bad for human health, including ozone and carbon monoxide, but here we’re concerned with fine particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns, or PM2.5 for short.

The reason for the focus is because, at that small size, particulate matter can penetrate the bloodstream and cause all manner of havoc, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and chronic pulmonary disease.

The American Lung Association has set an annual average guideline of 9 µg/m³ for PM2.5, however, the World Health Organization has set a much more stringent limit of 5 µg/m³.

The 21 Most Polluted Cities in the U.S.

Here are the top 21 most polluted cities in the U.S., according to their annual average PM2.5 concentrations:

The 30 Largest U.S. Hydropower Plants

Note: The American Lung Association uses Core Based Statistical Areas in its city and county rankings, which have been shortened here to the area’s principal city or metro area in the case of the Bay Area, CA.

Six of the top seven most polluted cities are in California, and four are in the state’s Central Valley, a 450-mile flat valley that runs parallel to the Pacific coast and is bordered by the Coast and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. As a result, when pollution from the big population centers on the coast is carried inland by the wind—cities #5 and #6 on the list—it tends to get trapped in the valley.

Bakersfield (#1), Visalia (#2), and Fresno (#3) are located at the drier and hotter southern end of the valley, which is worse for air quality. The top three local sources of PM2.5 emissions in 2023 were farms (20%), forest management / agricultural waste burning (20%), and road dust (14%).

Benefit to Economy

While the health impacts are generally well understood, less well known are the economic impacts.

Low air quality negatively affects worker productivity, increases absenteeism, and adds both direct and indirect healthcare costs. But the flip side of that equation is that improving air quality has measurable impacts on the wider economy. The EPA published a study that calculated the economic benefits of each metric ton of particulate matter that didn’t end up in the atmosphere, broken down by sector, including utilities.

The 30 Largest U.S. Hydropower Plants

At the same time, the EPA recently updated a cost-benefit analysis of the Clean Air Act, the main piece of federal legislation governing air quality. The analysis found that between 1990 and 2020, it cost the economy roughly $65 billion but also provided $2 trillion in benefits.

Benefit to Business

But that’s at the macroeconomic level, so what about individual businesses?

For one, employees like to breathe clean air and will choose to work somewhere else if given a choice. A 2022 Deloitte case study revealed that nearly 70% of highly skilled workers said air quality was a significant factor in choosing which city to live and work in.

At the same time, air quality can impact employer-sponsored healthcare premiums by reducing the overall health of the risk pool. And since insurance premiums averaged $7,590 per year in 2022 for a single employee and rose to $21,931 for a family, that can add up fast.

Consumers are also putting their purchase decisions through a green lens, while ESG, triple-bottom-line, and impact investing are putting the environment front and center for many investors.

And if the carrot isn’t enough for some businesses, there is the stick. The EPA recently gave vehicle engine manufacturer Cummins nearly two billion reasons to help improve air quality, in a settlement the agency is calling “the largest civil penalty in the history of the Clean Air Act and the second largest environmental penalty ever.”

Learn more about how electric utilities and the power sector can lead on the path toward decarbonization here.

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