Hold Your Breath: Where Air Quality Is Best And Worst In America

Want to avoid bad air? Stay out of California.

Look at the big emerging economies of the world and you can see how economic growth leads to air pollution. Places like Beijing have become a lot richer recently, but, on bad days, you need a mask just to walk down the street.


Air quality doesn’t always track with economic growth: Just look at the United States. Since 1970, when Congress introduced the Clean Air Act, the economy has expanded by 234%. In that time, pollution–as measured by an aggregate of six major pollutants–has decreased by a laudable 68%. Yes, environmental legislation really does work.

There are still places, though, where breathing too deeply isn’t a good idea. Across the nation, 138.5 million people–or 44% of the population–live with “unhealthy” air, according to the American Lung Association. Things continue mostly to get better, but not everywhere.

Modesto, CA Flickr user Tom Hilton

California dominates the list of most polluted metros in 2014. Fresno-Madera, Bakersfield and Visalia-Porterville-Hanford had the worst particle pollution. Los Angeles-Long Beach occupies the top spot for ozone, as it has for the last 16 years the ALA has produced its ranking. The state’s drought may have contributed to the problem, producing more dust and raising the danger of wildfires.

At the other extreme, Prescott, Arizona, Farmington, New Mexico, and Cheyenne, Wyoming had the least particulate pollution last year. Across three years of data, from 2011 to 2013, six cities had the best air overall, with no days of “unhealthy” levels of particulates or ozone. These include Bismarck, North Dakota, Cape Coral-Fort Myers-Naples, Florida, and Elmira-Corning, New York. To see how where you live fares, put in your ZIP here.

Flagstaff, AZFlickr user Ken Lund

As you would expect, the ALA wants to see the Clean Air Act kept intact and for the Environmental Protection Agency to go through with its proposed Clean Power Plan, which aims limit greenhouse gases from power plants. It also wants to see more monitoring. It notes: “Less than one-third of all counties have ozone or particle pollution monitors, seriously limiting the ability to adequately detect and track the levels of harmful air pollution.”


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.