10 U.S. Cities With the Cleanest Air
Places you can breathe easy
Forty years after the Clean Air Act, more people are breathing easier. "In general, we’ve seen tremendous improvement in air quality," says Jonathan M. Samet, MD, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.
But some air is cleaner than others. Here are the 10 cities with the cleanest air, according to the
American Lung Association’s annual report, which looks at levels of ozone and particulates, which are tiny particles that can get lodged in your lungs.
Cheyenne is the clear winner: It has the lowest level of year-round PM 2.5 particulates, tiny lung invaders about 1/30th the width of a human hair. Cheyenne's small size may help; fewer cars travel the roads, and vehicles are a key source of PM 2.5 (and ozone).
Wyoming’s capital also has fewer short-term spikes in 24-hour particle pollution. "When exposure peaks, you can have an increased risk of hospitalization for asthma or a heart attack," notes Joel Kaufman, MD, director of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
Santa Fe, N.M.
Popular for both its art galleries and clean air, it may come as no surprise that a Santa Fe artist recently unveiled a sculpture that measures particulate air pollution.
The city’s growing population cares about air quality too. There are strict rules that limit wood burning, a source of particulates. (The area has more than 1.5 million acres of national forest.)
Santa Fe is one of only 20 U.S. cities the ALA looked at with consistently safe ozone levels. (While the atmosphere’s ozone protects us from the sun’s rays, ground-level ozone is a pollutant.)
Bismarck has some of the lowest year-round particulate levels of all U.S. cities (it comes in at number 11) and ozone levels below what is considered dangerous.
North Dakota’s capital is protected from pollutants due to a relatively remote location and the fact that it’s not downwind of other cities. Although its winters make it one of the coldest U.S. cities, the low temperatures keep ozone at bay.
Its citizens care also helped establish the
Bismarck Tobacco Free Coalition to promote a smoke-free environment.
Great Falls, Mont.
It’s a good thing that the small and relatively remote city of Great Falls enjoys clean air, given how much time its residents probably spend outdoors taking advantage of the area’s natural beauty.
The city continues to work hard to maintain that quality standard, recently fending off a major coal-fired power-plant project (another major PM 2.5 offender).
Honolulu is well-known as a popular vacation destination. But it can be a vacation for the lungs too, as it has some of the nation’s lowest levels of both ozone and particulates.
Due to Honolulu’s isolation in the Pacific Ocean, Dr. Kaufman suggests that it generally remains safe from the long-range transport of pollution. Particles that result from burning coal, for example, can travel great distances, but few are likely to reach Honolulu, some 2,000 miles off the mainland.
Large amounts of rain, adds Dr. Samet, also help.
Anchorage is another city that is protected by a "relatively sparse population," notes Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer at the American Lung Association.
He adds that cool and wet weather conditions, as well as distance from other large cities, also clear the air.
"When we consider where the air is most polluted, we often think about California and Texas," Dr. Samet notes.
But Amarillo, which is one of the cleanest spots based on both 24-hour and year-round particulate pollution, is an exception to that rule. An abundance of wind and moisture help their cause, suggests Dr. Samet.
People in this relatively remote city, he adds, are also less likely to "drive huge distances."
While California holds many of the top spots in the lineup of the dirtiest U.S. cities, Redding enjoys its place on a healthier list. The city is north of the pollution-prone San Joaquin Valley in a less densely populated area, where it is somewhat buffered from other large cities.
Further, unlike the Los Angeles area, the city does not suffer the same geographical bowl-effect that traps the notorious Southern California smog.
Small size, remote location, and cold weather conspire to make Duluth one of only seven cities in the U.S. to make it on the list for both lowest year-round particle pollution and ozone levels.
Of course, restrictions over the burning of trash and an EPA-funded program to reduce dirty diesel-burning school buses can only help Duluth keep its air clean.
The small-town feel played a central part in the dark 1996 movie Fargo, and it is the relatively small population that is a big player in keeping Fargo on the list of clean-air cities.
Like Bismarck, Fargo has low levels of year-round particle pollution as well as ozone levels that are below the limit considered unhealthy.