Global Air Quality

19 Mar

When it comes to air quality, high profile cities such as Beijing often get a bad reputation for having some of the worst air quality in the world. This is not without good reason – recent appalling figures and international pressure have forced Chinese officials to institute strategies to curb pollution in the city. However, when looking at pollution levels globally, sadly China’s capital is not the city that consistently endures that worst pollution levels in the world. Surprisingly, it’s nowhere near the top.

One of the measures of air quality is the number of parts per million of particles smaller than 10 micrometers (PM 10) present in the air.  The global PM 10 average is 71. Beijing’s residents breathe in air with an average PM 10 of 121. According to air monitoring data gathered by the World Health Organization (WHO) between 2003 and 2010, the world’s worst air pollution is in the city of Ahwaz in southwestern Iran, which has an average PM 10 of about 372, three times higher than Beijing’s levels. Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, ranks second with an average PM 10 of 279.

By comparison, the most polluted region in the United States, according to the WHO’s air quality data, is Bakersfield, California, in the heart of the state’s Central Valley. However, Bakersfield ranked far below cities in the developing world, with an average count PM of [only] 38.  While we have plenty of room for improvement, particularly where it comes to the disproportionate exposure of poor communities to higher levels of air pollution, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the long way we’ve come since smog days shut down school yards.  The passage of the Clean Air Act extension of 1970, and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (shout-outs to Presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush) authorized the EPA to create and enforce regulations to protect Americans from airborne pollutants known to be hazardous to our health.  These are American-made innovations well worth exporting to our trading partners in the developing world.

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