Environment

10 Most Polluted Cities In The United States

In terms of highest levels of particulate matter air pollution as documented by the American Lung Association, Southern California's cities earn not-so-flattering ranks.

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With burgeoning economies and expanding human populations, it may come as no surprise that the Southwest U.S. and Southern California have some of the most polluted cities in the United States. Natural factors such as wind currents and topography also come into play as determinants of air particulate matter concentration, and many of these cities are essentially brewing "perfect storms" for poor air quality. Many of these areas have been plagued with air pollution for generation, although there is hope for the future in the wake of increased monitoring and proactive regulation to combat the smog-filled air. Here is the list of the country's most polluted places, with data from the American Lung Association. 

10. Pittsburgh

Though historically an industrial city, we had hoped that the 21st century would mean an improvement in air quality in Pittsburgh. While things have almost certainly improved for the Steel City, the recent findings from the American Lung Association show that there is still a long way to go. According to the Penn Environment Research and Policy Center, much of the pollution that plagues Pittsburgh can be blamed on ten factories. The worst offender is the Cheswick Power Plant, which is powered by coal. Some of the pollutants produced by the plant include lead, NOX, and mercury.


The city of Las Cruces, New Mexico is home to an estimated population of over 100,000 people. Poor air quality in the southwestern US community is largely due to high concentrations of ozone in the air. Ozone results when carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and nitrogen oxides mix together in hot temperatures. The air pollution problem in Las Cruces is largely the result of factors such as car exhaust, as well as industrial plant emissions. Elevated levels of ozone are a major cause of breathing difficulties among the population. Recently the mayor of Las Cruces, Ken Miyagishima, along with various other local politicians came together in a call for the U.S. Federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency to implement policies in order to effectively deal with the dangerous emissions produced by the oil and gas industries.

9. Seattle-Tacoma

It's surprising to see Seattle, a city in the picturesque Pacific Northwest region, on the list of the most polluted cities. Unfortunately, the Seattle and Tacoma regions suffer from short-term particle pollution. Wildfires in the areas outside of the city are the main cause of the pollution. Thanks to climate change, the weather in Seattle has been more dry than wet, which means that the forest fires not put out as quickly. This in turn means polluted air. Those who are particularly vulnerable to the poor air quality include children and the elderly.



The southern city of Shreveport was founded by the Shreve Town Company in 1836. Situated on a low elevation overlooking the Red River, the port city has long been a hub for land and waterway transportation. Due to its geographical location and humid climate, residents of Shreveport continually face risks associated with natural phenomena such as flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes, as well as man-made environmental concerns like pollution. Issues such as air quality, waste water management, and recycling are all handled by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. One of the responsibilities of this agency includes programs involving ambient air monitoring in which levels of ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead are measured throughout the state. Due to this program, residents in cities like Shreveport have access to daily air quality reports.

8. Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City, the capital and largest city in the state of Utah, suffers from poor air quality. The area surrounding the city is especially susceptible as its geographic location in the mountains acts as a trap for hazardous air particles. The same pollutants that are found in other cities, such as wood-burning fireplaces, factory emissions, and car exhaust, have a lingering impact in Salt Lake City, especially in the winter time.

7. Los Angeles

The bustling city of Los Angeles is known for many things, most notably its status as a mecca for the American entertainment industry. The so called “City of Angels” boasts of having the second largest population in the US and the third largest in North America, with over 13 million people residing within its metropolitan area. Unfortunately the city also has the unfortunate distinction of having levels of air pollution that rank among the highest in the country in terms of both ozone as well as both short- and long-term particulate matter concentrations. According to USA Today residents of Los Angeles are exposed to an average of 117.7 days of high ozone levels each year. Besides emissions from cars and high incidences of traffic congestion air pollution in Los Angeles also originates from the area’s many oil, gas, and electrical plants.

6. Yakima

Like Seattle, this mid-sized Washington state city suffers from the byproduct of wildfires. While the air around Yakima is generally clean and free from chemical pollutants, an increase in forest fires in the surrounding Washington State, Oregon, and British Columbia has resulted in an increase in short-term particle pollution.

5. Missoula

Missoula is a city found in the western part of Montana. Thoughts of Montana bring up ideas of majestic rocky mountains, free-flowing rivers, and buffalos roaming free, and these are all accurate. However, an increase in wildfires, driven by climate change, has meant a plunge in air quality levels in the area.

4. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland

The largest metropolitan area in northern California ranks high on short-term particle pollution. This is mostly due to forest fires that burn within close proximity to the city, but this is not the only contributor. Vehicles are also a major source of air pollution, as is the case across California.

3. Fairbanks

Fairbanks, Alaska, which is located in the central region of the state, is known by the motto “The Golden Heart City”. With its subarctic climate this northern community lies below the Arctic Circle and south of the tree line. The biggest cause of air pollution in the area is largely the due to contamination from wood burning furnaces which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Because wood is cheaper than other alternatives like oil and gas it's a popular source of energy. Organizations such as Clean Air Fairbanks have been formed in order to combat the community’s pollution problems by raising awareness about the situation, as well as educating local residents on alternative energy sources and the health dangers of air pollution.


2. Fresno

Located in central California, Fresno lies in the San Joaquin Valley and is home to about one half of a million residents. Traffic and pollution from industrial sources are just two of the many causes of poor air quality in the community. Citizens living in the area commonly suffer from medical conditions like asthma and chronic bronchitis. Because of its rich agricultural industry, the environment of the area surrounding San Bernadino has also suffered from contamination due to the use of toxic pesticides and other related materials. Fresno is known to be a diverse area, with a significant portion of the population coming from the African-American, Latino, and Cambodian communities.

1. Bakersfield

Bakersfield, California, is the most polluted place in the US in terms of short-term particle pollution. The city of around 380,000 people is located nearby oil rigs, which means that the city sometimes smells like petroleum. The city is also a major agricultural center, providing food not just to California put to the nation as a whole. Freight transportation and vehicles also contribute to the poor air quality.

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