To society at large, the environment today is a major source of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance — a sort of stress or anxiety that arises when reality conflicts with our values. Society takes comfort in the belief that all manner of labour, money and activism go into curbing its ecological footprint, while we're still aware - on some level - that human activity is undeniably making the planet a more hostile place to live. Ecological news is littered with alarmist phrases like “much worse than the predictions” and “sooner than expected”, this sensationalism can have the opposite effect of over-exposing the issue, normalizing the adversity and fueling a rejection of environmental realism.
To many, such phrases signal fear-mongering and media hype. In fact, the science is able to predict ecological consequences slower than they multiply, such that retroactively amending our measurements to account for unforeseen levels of pollution, glacier melt and damage has become a trend in environmental assessment. In other words, pollution today is continuously “off the charts”.
In early 2013, the US Embassy measured the air quality in Beijing at 755 on a 500-point scale for air quality standards. That’s 20 times the level deemed safe for human health. Around the same time period, the UK experienced four major air pollution episodes where monitors maxed out with “10s” on nitrogen levels in the atmosphere; environment officials advised against letting children play too long outdoors at the playgrounds. And on still days in the US, a plume of photochemical smog seems to blur every photograph of the major metropolises.
Giant cyclones of plastic debris swirling in the Pacific Ocean will probably remain the most tragic reminders of human civilization’s ecological toll. But the starkest portraits of our ecological paradox arise close to home—in our cities, where life and industry flourish in tandem with harmful consequences.
Take a look at which 10 US cities landed on the American Lung Association’s 2014 State of the Air report for the worst levels of short-term air quality.
10 San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
A 2012 study by the Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association found roughly 1.36 million gallons of trash flow into the San Francisco Bay every year; enough to fill 100,000 kitchen garbage bags. But the worst pollution in the San Francisco Bay Area is mostly unseen. When a windless cold snap this past winter saw its air quality drop far beyond even that of Beijing’s, little doubt remained that San Fran routinely harbours among the worst air qualities in the Western world.
9 El Paso-Las Cruces, Texas-New Mexico
While El Paso and Las Cruces never fail to make pollution indexes, many experts blame natural factors. The combined area of roughly 1 million people fares better than most in traffic congestion and exhaust pollution, but susceptibility to dust storms puts it at particular risk for poor air quality. Many, however, say the causes aren’t quite so natural as of late; in the desert landscape of Texas and New Mexico a spike in development projects, particularly mining operations, has removed desert vegetation and loosened record amounts of ground dirt to be blown into cities.
8 Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem, Utah
Year round the Greater Salt Lake region evens out for relatively inoffensive air quality standards. But during bad spells like the record spikes this past December, the highs get really high. Metropolitan Utah’s vulnerability to winter smog spikes have been linked to the state’s accelerating oil, gas and mining developments, leading the state to pitch plenty of clean air bills last year. Unsurprisingly, they only managed to pass some of the weakest ones and solutions remain wanting. Sharp and sudden rises in ozone—a cancer causing agent—are a harsh reality for an area that includes roughly 200,000 asthmatics.
7 Fairbanks, Alaska
Farther north than most of Canada, in that remote wilderness outpost virtually isolated from the metropolitan ills of the 21st century, you will find one of America’s most polluted cities. How can this be, when it’s clear global warming hasn’t had much to say in Fairbanks? Well that’s just the problem. Alaskans need copious amounts of fuel to survive, and that far north of the 49th no source makes more sense than burning wood. There’s no gas pipeline and fuel costs $4.50 a gallon. This shapes lax regulations which let residents burn just about anything to meet their energy needs, from wood to trash to animal carcasses. And so in Fairbanks, population 100,000, furnaces burn all night and keep the city suspended in a halo of smoke and particulate dust.
6 Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pennsylvania
The Smoky City has historically been a hallmark of industrial pollution. Unregulated coal mining and steel production enveloped downtown Pittsburgh in a sooty haze by the 1940s, sparking many infamous accounts of darkness in broad daylight. With the city’s health and appearance in peril, the state adopted drastic protections to undo the afflictions of industry in the mid 1900s. How's it doing today? With a move towards service and tech industries, Pittsburghians have gotten used to seeing the sky again. But as a key player in transportation and with a population of nearly 2.5 million, emissions still leave the greater metropolitan area with some of the worst short and long-term air quality in the US, and a high rate of lung disease and asthma to boot.
5 Modesto-Merced, California
Summer temperatures in the Modesto-Merced region range from 95 °F (35 °C) to 40 °F (4 °C). Around this agricultural hub of California, the usage of industrial fertilizer and chemicals has long impacted the area’s groundwater; as for air quality, the city experiences frequent high ozone days and registers a high number of pollutants in the air. Even while relatively less direct contamination happens in this comparatively small region of less than 800,000 people, this is California — the days are hot and still, the forest fires are frequent, and the smog in the cities is legendary.
4 Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
No, you haven’t stepped into an alternate dimension where LA isn’t the grungiest city in America. By ozone levels — perhaps the most commonly used pollution indicator — LA remains the worst by a long shot. But by year-round air pollution it’s the third worst, and, against all odds, on the short-term LA finds itself 3 points shy of the number one position. On smoldering California days, 18.2 million residents in the combined LA-Long Beach area breathe a colossal cloud of engine exhaust and irritating particulates. But when it comes to the most detrimental spikes in poor air quality, the worst of it falls elsewhere.
3 Bakersfield, California
Staying in the polluted hub that is California, Bakersfield holds a solid third place across the board for worst ozone, long and short term particle pollution. Its flanking mountains shield the city from passing winds and allow massive particulate clouds plenty of time to linger. Moreover, this major oil producer regularly pumps diesel soot and chemical vapors into the air, so on the worst of days the 850,000 residents have to suffer some of the worst air conditions in the world.
2 Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, California
With only 600,000 people, the combined Visalia-Porterville-Hanford area hardly brings to mind the exhaust-laden grit of Californian city life. But with a second place ranking in all three State of the Air pollution indicators, this combined region might be the most polluted in America overall. For that, it has some unfortunate features to thank: Visalia and Porterville not only lie amidst the wind-barriers of the Pacific Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada, but also between Bakersville and the number one victim of pollution...
1 Fresno-Madera, California
It’s a West Coast home-run. Here, in the center of the San Joaquin Valley, the perfect conditions for deadly spikes in air pollution converge: Mountain borders insulating the land from smog-dispersing wind, heavy industry, and population-dense surroundings that include LA and Long Beach. The valley region has such notoriously stagnant weather that a fungal infection caused by inhaling airborne dust is named after it — San Joaquin Valley Fever, otherwise coccidioidomycosis — which is endemic throughout the southwestern United States. Fresno may not be the first place you’d think of catching this fever, but with an unfortunate mix of geography and circumstance, during one of its list-topping spikes in pollution chances are unfortunately better in Fresno than anywhere else in America.