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More than 1.5 million people live with unhealthy air in Missouri, Illinois and Kansas

An illustration of pollution, 2017
Rici Hoffarth
St. Louis Public Radio
According to the American Lung Association, Lincoln, Nebraska boasts some of the cleanest air in the nation.

The news about America’s air quality is pretty grim.

The latest “State of the Air” report says deadly particle pollution is “the most severe” it’s been in the history of the report. According to the study from the American Lung Association, people in the U.S. experienced the most days with “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” air quality due to particle pollution in 25 years.

“When we started this report, our team never imagined that 25 years in the future, more than 130 million people would still be breathing unhealthy air,” said Harold Wimmer, ALA president and CEO.

The newly released data shows about 1.5 million people in Illinois, Kansas and Missouri are living with unhealthy air quality. Areas of each of these states received poor grades from the ALA.

People in Iowa and Nebraska are breathing better air than their neighbors, according to the data. In fact, the association says Lincoln, Nebraska, is one of the nation’s “five cleanest cities.” Lincoln is the only city in the Midwest to make the list.

Katherine Pruitt, the editor of State of the Air, said Lincoln and the other top cities for clean air share common factors, like fewer sources of harmful emissions, as well as favorable climate, weather and topography.

“Unlike other places though,” said Pruitt, who is also a senior director with ALA, “the cities that make the cleanest cities list in our report have monitors in place for both ozone and particle pollution, which allows them to track pollution levels and keep their populace informed about the quality of the air they are breathing.”

In total, the report finds that 39% of people in the U.S. are living in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution based on three measurements.

  • Ozone pollution, otherwise known as smog
  • Short-term particulate matter air pollution
  • Long-term particulate matter air pollution

“Particulate matter includes soot from wildfires, wood-burning stoves, coal-fired power plants and other sources,” said Dr. Juanita Mora, a Chicago-based medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association. “It enters through our nose, then goes directly to the lungs, and it's so tiny that it goes down to the smallest airways.”

Dr. Juanita Mora, based in Chicago, is a national spokesperson for the American Lung Association.
American Lung Association
American Lung Association
Dr. Juanita Mora, based in Chicago, is a national spokesperson for the American Lung Association.

Mora said particulate pollution can pose a risk for heart attacks, cognitive delays, strokes and lung cancer.

Ozone (smog) is generated when pollutants from a variety of sources collide in the presence of sunlight.

“I like to call ozone the sunburn that goes directly to our lungs,” Mora said. “And what it does over time is, it predisposes patients to increased respiratory infections like pneumonia, and long-term, can cause lung cancer as well.”

While the U.S. has made progress in reducing smog, ALA said there is much more work to be done. In 2000, State of the Air reported that 72% of people in the U.S. who lived in counties with ozone monitors had unhealthy levels of ozone pollution. Today, that figure is 30%.

In the Midwest, the report shows Missouri has two counties with “D” grades for smog and two with “F” grades for smog. Illinois has six counties with “F” grades. There are no “D” or “F” grade counties for smog in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska.

Breathing easy in Lincoln

Ken Winston is an attorney and environmental advocate who lives in Lincoln. He said Lincoln voters have consistently supported candidates who have strong pro-environment stances – including the current mayor, Leirion Gaylor Baird, who won reelection in 2023.

“She got reelected by a fairly substantial margin,” Winston said. “And she is the one who proposed the Lincoln Climate Action Plan. That's a sign that people support this kind of activity.”

The Lincoln plan has an ambitious goal: to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 80% by the year 2050.

Lincoln, with a population of 292,000, is the Nebraska state capital and home to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. With over 6,000 acres of parks and natural land, Lincoln and Lancaster County share a good foundation for maintaining clean air. Research has shown that trees can improve air quality by removing pollutants from the air and converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Smog and particulate-heavy areas tend to feature busy freeways crisscrossing cities, as well as plants and factories that release soot and gasses into the air. Winston, an active member of the Nebraska Sierra Club, said these factors are less prevalent in and around Lincoln. The Lincoln Electric System relies on about equal parts renewables (e.g. solar and wind energy), natural gas and coal.

Additionally, the area’s mass transit system, called StarTran, began replacing diesel buses with electric buses in 2020.

The region also has a robust monitoring system, according to Gary Bergstrom, who supervises the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department Air Quality Program.

“They're giving you those counts in real time, so that we can know: Is air quality getting worse? Is it getting better? How quickly is that happening?” Bergstrom said.

The monitoring system incorporates EPA-standard air quality monitoring systems, which Bergstrom described as “costly,” as well as a more affordable system called PurpleAir which provides real-time data through a hyper-local network system.

“And so that kind of helps us to inform our decisions on what we tell the public.”

In addition to the monitoring program, the department has an inspection process for industrial sites, Bergstrom said, which allows his team to catch problems early and work on problems in cooperation with polluters.

“And so when we know that air quality is going to be poor, we inform the public,” Bergstrom said. “We say, ‘Here's what you can do. Here's who we think is going to be most affected. Here's what those folks can do to protect their health.”

A challenge, he said, is managing air quality factors Lincoln and Lancaster County can’t control.

“Last summer was a great example,” he said. “The Canadian wildfires that kind of burned all summer long really impacted air quality here in Lincoln.”

Meanwhile, in Omaha

Less than an hour’s drive northeast from Lincoln lies Omaha, Nebraska's largest city, with a population of about 485,000. Air quality here is a different story, particularly in North Omaha, a predominantly Black community. Omaha, located in Douglas County, ranked among the top 10 most challenging places to live with asthma in the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s Asthma Capitals 2019 Report.

The new State of the Air data shows that a person of color in the U.S. is 2.3 times more likely than a white person to live in a community with a failing grade on all three air pollution measures. An estimated 20% of North Omaha residents suffer from asthma.

David Corbin, professor emeritus in public health from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and energy committee chair of the Nebraska Chapter Sierra Club, said the coal-burning Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) plant in North Omaha is a major contributor to the community’s health woes.

“Now you could argue that it’s not just air pollution that causes asthma,” Corbin said. “But Omaha Public Power District is the major polluter in the area.”

OPPD aimed to convert its two remaining coal-burning units to natural gas by the end 2023, but that didn’t happen. OPPD officials said the district’s electricity infrastructure was not ready for the transition and pushed the deadline to 2026. OPPD has already converted three coal-burning units to natural gas, but Corbin said pollution from other sources persists.

The PurpleAir sensor system allows users to monitor air quality in real time.
The PurpleAir sensor system allows users to monitor air quality in real time.

“Even gas is polluting,” he said. “And so when those gas burners are on, that's ozone. And then ozone is very bad for people with asthma when it's hot weather.”

After the news of the delay came in August 2022, North Omaha residents worked with the Nebraska Sierra Club to purchase and install PurpleAir monitors near the plant and in other parts of the community.

In contrast with Lincoln, which paid to install the PurpleAir sensors, in North Omaha, private funds and donations were gathered to get the system up and running.

In 2020, the Douglas County Health Department adopted a resolution calling racism “a public health crisis.”

The resolution called for actions including anti-bias training for public health workers, and developing policies to evaluate the racial impact of health policies.

Mora said communities like North Omaha suffer from historic neglect and underinvestment, which shows up in health disparities.

“These communities need to be greenified, like planting trees,” Mora said. “As well as cutting the carbon footprint to bridge those health disparities that we're seeing now.”

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Do you have a tip or question for us? Email midwestnewsroom@kcur.org.

Holly Edgell is the managing editor of the Midwest Newsroom, a public radio collaboration among NPR member stations in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.