Birmingham air pollution looks different today – but lives are still “at risk”

Birmingham Alabama
Photo via Bhamwiki by LeRoy Woodson for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Documerica” program

Air pollution in Birmingham looks very different than it used to.

Gone are the days of black sooty window sills and soiled shirts.

Today, the polluted air we breathe is not visually as dramatic. It’s nearly invisible and microscopic. But it still shortens and disrupts the lives of thousands of people.

Meet Mark Sleeper
Birmingham Alabama
Mark Sleeper – photo by Pat Byington, Bham Now

Twenty-seven year old Birmingham native Mark Sleeper looks like your everyday millennial. He works at the Apple Store, mountain bikes, enjoys photography and likes to cook. He also has cystic fibrosis.

Living in Birmingham with its air pollution is challenging at best for Mark, but it is home. His family lives here. He has world class doctors at UAB who have taken care of him most of his life.

He loves the Magic City, but daily he must be aware of the state of Birmingham’s air quality. It’s a matter of survival.

“I’ve got apps to look at weather and because I like to do things outside, I must constantly check the air quality,” stated Sleeper.

“If I want to go for a swim or get on a bike to ride, I’ve got to be careful.”

In contrast, once when Sleeper visited Colorado, he noticed how crisp and clean, the fresh air was the minute he stepped outside the airport. It was liberating.

Mark’s physician, Dr. Steven Rowe, director of Cystic Fibrosis Research Center at UAB describes what would happen to his patients if they are not careful and do not monitor Birmingham’s air.

“There is solid evidence that air pollution is a significant contributor to hospitalizations for cystic fibrosis patients that often last ten to fourteen days at a time.”

Birmingham – one of the worst in the South

According to the American Lung Association’s most recent “State of the Air” report, Birmingham is one of the worst cities in the Deep South for air pollution.

Birmingham Alabama
Infographic from the American Lung Association
How does Birmingham Compare?

The Magic City ranks 22nd in the American Lung Association’s national ranking, surpassing Chattanooga (44th), Atlanta (44th), Hattiesburg MS. (39th), Columbus, Ga. (33rd), Dallas, Texas (33rd) Macon, Ga (28th), Little Rock, Ark. (25th).

Ahead of Birmingham in the worst air pollution rankings – eight California metro areas, Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland and Detroit, and two southern cities, Louisville, Kentucky and Houston, Texas.

People at risk

Air pollution’s impact on “at risk” populations in the Birmingham metro area with chronic lung disease and other health issues is staggering. From that same 2017 State of the Air report, in Jefferson and Shelby counties alone, thousands of residents are placed in danger, when we have bad air pollution days.

Here are the number of “at risk” populations with chronic lung issues:

26,776 – Children with Pediatric asthma
66,058 – Adult Asthma
69,370 –  COPD
594 – Lung Cancer

This not a typo. Approximately, 170,000 people in the two counties have chronic lung disease. To put it all into perspective, imagine filling up Legion Field to capacity 3 times.  That’s how many people are placed in harm’s way.

The “epicenter” of air pollution

The 2017 map below  from the New England Journal of Medicine shows how Birmingham is the epicenter for the Southeast for fine particle pollution.

Birmingham Alabama
Map about fine particle pollution in the New England Journal of Medicine. Note the how Central Alabama is at the epicenter of the areas most vulnerable to particle pollution – graphic used with permission from The New England Journal of Medicine ©2017

Dr. Veena Antony, Professor of Medicine at UAB, best described why we should be concerned about fine particle pollution:

Birmingham Alabama
UAB’s Dr. Veena Antony – photo by Pat Byington, Bham Now

“We have to be concerned about fine particles because anything as fine as 2.5 microns, really floats in the air, so we can breathe them really deep in our lungs, and then when they go that deep into the lungs, they can cross over into the blood. Then we have these little micro particles floating around in our blood that can reach other organ systems. You can get cardiovascular effects, neurological effects. It goes all over the body.”

Lung disease is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

Antony added. “There has been a dramatic improvement with air pollution in Birmingham, but now you can’t see it. It’s different.  We still have to recognize that we have a legacy that people from the 1970s are now “presenting” at our clinics with lung disease and ongoing issues. They need to be addressed. We at UAB are very eager to help our community.”

Breakthrough research

This summer, as reported in Science Daily, a new study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), shows that long-term exposure to airborne fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone increases the risk of premature death, even when that exposure is at levels below the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) currently established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Today’s standards Air Quality standards not enough

For lay people not familiar with regulatory language, the study concludes that today’s national air quality standards are not stringent enough, and need to be strengthened.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers who conducted the study found that men, blacks, and low-income populations had higher risk estimates from PM2.5 exposure compared with the national average, with blacks having mortality risks three times higher than the national average.

The results showed that if the level of PM2.5 could be lowered by just 1 microgram per cubic meter (ug/m3) nationwide, about 12,000 lives could be saved every year. Similarly, if the level of ozone could be lowered by just 1 part per billion (ppb) nationwide, about 1,900 lives would be saved each year.

Birmingham Alabama
Image from the American Lung Association
Thousands of lives at stake

Air quality standards and rules save thousands of lives annually. Despite that fact, the Clean Air Act is constantly under attack.

UAB’s Dr. Antony summed up why clean air is important to everyone.

“We all share the same air whether you live in a gated community or a poor community.”

In our third installment, we will examine what people are doing in Birmingham to fight for clean air and how you can get involved.



Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

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