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More than 80 percent of the Earth’s urban residents are breathing unhealthy air. They’re living in cities with lots of cars, trucks and fossil fuel-burning power plants. Think Peshawar in Pakistan, the Saudi capital Riyadh, or Delhi, India.
But a newly updated database from the World Health Organization also pinpoints urban spots where air is the cleanest.
Muonio, Finland (in Finnish it rhymes with “Borneo”), appears near the top of the WHO list, and Finns know why. “It’s among the cleanest areas on Earth,” says Pia Anttila, senior research scientist at the Finnish Meteorological Institute in Helsinki. Not surprising, perhaps, since Muonio is barely a city at all.
Like other “urban areas” showing the cleanest air in the WHO database, Muonio benefits from a sparse population, few cars and a total lack of industry.
“It’s a tiny village,” says resident Nina Wigley. “We are about 2,500 people living here in Muonio.” She and her British husband William Wigley moved to Muonio 12 years ago to enjoy the natural beauty — and the air.
Nina Wigley runs two cafés that cater to seasonal visitors. Her husband is a civil engineer. The Wigleys live at the edge of town with their three children.
“Even in wintertime, all of our children were sleeping in the baby prams outside in the minus temperatures, which the in-laws all found a bit shocking in the beginning,” says Nina Wigley. “But it’s just that they sleep so well when they are nicely covered in layers, and the air is so pure.”
You can see a distant church spire through their back window. But that’s not the top attraction in Muonio. “We can walk out our front door and in a minute we are able to go into the forest,” says William Wigley.
The air-quality monitoring station, which supplied the WHO data, is not in the town center, but in the middle of a national park. Researcher Anttila was there recently. She says the term “urban” is misleading, at least at the monitoring station.
“It’s a very remote place. Nobody lives in the vicinity, and only the maintenance person goes there now and then.” And there’s nothing much to see, she adds. “Only lakes and hills, not a living person … within tens of kilometers.”
“You do have reindeer and … all sorts of animals there, and lots of lovely hiking treks,” points out Nina Wigley. “But there’s really nothing around here,” adds her husband, “and that’s really the attraction.”
“And then, of course, there is one thing that is very important for us Finns,” researcher Anttila adds. “And that is the silence,” she laughs. “Mostly you can be there alone.”
Anttila says authorities placed the air monitoring station in Muonio in 1996 to take advantage of its remote location. It’s a place with virtually no local air pollution. “There are no local emissions, there are no regional emissions even, and all the things that we detect there are long-range transported.”
Because of Muonio’s pristine air, the impact of faraway pollution sources can be measured precisely. Anttila says the monitoring station does detect small amounts of pollutants: pesticides, PCBs and sulphur dioxide. “But they all come from far away, from densely populated areas,” she says. “Mostly from Central Europe and maybe even from the United States.”
Air pollution can travel thousands of miles to reach this remote corner of Northern Europe. But measurements from Muonio show that, since 1996, these pollutants have mostly declined.
However, Anttila notes that one chemical shows a steady upward trend through the two decades of measurement at Muonio. “The carbon dioxide goes up,” she observes. “And that means climate change enhances.”
Even in Muonio.
By Stephen Snyder, PRI’s The World
This article is syndicated from PRI’s The World.
The Air Quality Index is based on measurement of particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), Ozone (O3), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) and Carbon Monoxide (CO) emissions. Most of the stations on the map are monitoring both PM2.5 and PM10 data, but there are few exceptions where only PM10 is available.
All measurements are based on hourly readings: For instance, an AQI reported at 8AM means that the measurement was done from 7AM to 8AM.
Pollution has long been as integral to American urban life as slow-walking tourists, besuited executives, and trendy restaurants. But here's the good news: There are metropolitan areas where you can enjoy the benefits of city life and breathe freely (and safely) while you do it.
Our data team crunched some numbers to find just where those urban Edens might be, and then donned biohazard gear to determine their most soiled siblings. A pattern soon emerged: The cleanest cities are typically set amid agricultural communities, with a national forest or natural reserve nearby. Meanwhile, the most polluted cities are former industrial hubs in the Rust Belt and along the Gulf of Mexico.
Overall, though, pollution in the U.S. has declined quite a bit in recent years. The nation's industrial facilities released 25% less toxic chemicals in 2015 than in 2005, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Give the credit to green chemistry, improved waste management, and fewer industrial facilities, says EPA spokesman Robert Daguillard.
"Air quality has gotten much better because of preventions that were put into place under the 1970 Clean Air Act," says Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of the American Lung Association. The federal law was designed to limit air pollution.
And the impact is being felt. Los Angeles, once the American poster child for smog, still has some of the nation's worst air quality, but it's been steadily improving for decades. There were only six clear L.A. days (where air pollution poses little risk) in 1980, according to the EPA. Last year there were 65.
Despite the improvements, about half of Americans still live with unhealthy levels of air pollution, Nolen notes.
Los Angeles in 1956 (left) and 2017
Left: American Stock/Getty Images, right: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
To find the big cities where the air is pristine and the water safe to drink—and the ones where they aren't—we ranked the 150 largest metros by the following criteria:
Ready? Take a deep breath: Here's what we learned about the nation's least and most polluted cities.
If anyone knows where to find refuge from air pollution near Los Angeles freeways, it’s Suzanne Paulson.
The UCLA atmospheric chemistry professor has spent years studying how invisible plumes of dirty air from car- and truck-choked roadways spread into surrounding neighborhoods — increasing residents’ risk of cancer, asthma, heart disease and other illnesses.
So when she bought a home in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Santa Monica in 2007, she made sure it was on a quiet street far from the 10 Freeway — well beyond the 500-foot zone where California air quality regulators say it’s unhealthful to put homes, schools and day cares.
In the late night and early morning, it turns out, traffic pollution drifts much farther than during the day, and can extend more than a mile downwind from the freeway.
That discovery, made by Paulson and her colleagues, is one example of new research revealing how much your exposure to harmful levels of vehicle pollution is affected by your specific surroundings. It’s not only your distance from traffic, but other details such as wind patterns, freeway design, the time of day and the types of cars, trucks and buildings around you that determine the risk.
“We’re learning that the pollution you breathe comes down to where you are, when you’re there and what the traffic is like,” Paulson said.
Such findings are prompting new advice from air quality officials and scientists on steps you can take to protect yourself.
Southern California is experiencing a surge in home construction near freeways that is pushing more people into high-pollution zones. But just because state and local officials are allowing new housing there doesn’t mean it is safe, health experts say.
When choosing a home, school or day care, aim for locations as far from the freeway as possible.
Avoid sites within 500 feet — where California air quality regulators warn against building — or even 1,000 feet. That’s where traffic pollution is generally highest, along with rates of asthma, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, reduced lung function, pre-term births and a growing list of other health problems.
Also avoid living near major roads — those carrying more than 100,000 vehicles a day — which, according to air quality regulators, can pose health risks similar to freeways. That includes stretches of some of Los Angeles’ busiest boulevards such as Sepulveda, La Cienega and Wilshire.
If you have a central heating, air-conditioning or ventilation system, install high-efficiency air filters. They should be rated 13 or higher on the 16-point industry MERV scale (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) that measures how effectively they block tiny pollution particles.
Make sure to replace them on schedule, about every few months.
But filters remove only some of the harmful ingredients in traffic pollution. And they’re effective only when the air is running and all doors and windows are closed.
Most will not remove toxic exhaust gases such as benzene and 1,3-butadiene. To screen those out, you need more costly charcoal filters.
Also factor in the age of your building. Filters are less effective in older homes, which let in more pollutants, and work better in newer dwellings that seal off more outside air.
If you live in a new home near a freeway in Los Angeles or San Francisco, high-efficiency filters may already be required. And the California Energy Commission is moving to require MERV 13 air filtration in all newly constructed dwellings starting in 2020.
But those rules will do nothing to reduce pollution in existing homes, including those occupied by more than 1.2 million people in Southern California who already live within 500 feet of a freeway.
Don’t have central air? Adding one or two stand-alone air-cleaning devices to your home can help reduce particle pollution levels, so long as you keep them running 24/7. But air cleaners are effective at lowering particle levels only in a single room, not an entire home. Make sure the model you choose is certified by California regulators.
If you can’t avoid living near a freeway, some locations offer more protection than others.
It’s better to live behind a sound wall, especially one with thick trees and plants extending above it. Such obstacles, though not designed to block vehicle emissions, can reduce pollution levels immediately downwind.
It’s also preferable to live near a freeway that is elevated above or sits well below your home. That vertical separation can help disperse pollutants. At-grade freeways, where lanes sit at the same level as surrounding buildings, are worse because they put vehicle tailpipes right next to people’s lungs.
If you live on a major boulevard, you’re better off when there are buildings of varying heights, parks and other open spaces that allow allow exhaust pollutants to disperse up and away from traffic, state regulators say. Avoid “street canyons,” blocks with masses of tall buildings that can trap pollution.
Postpone outdoor exercise to later in the morning to dodge the spike in traffic pollution in the pre-sunrise hours. That’s when stagnant weather conditions, caused by nighttime cooling, trap freeway pollution near the ground. That slows down the dispersal of emissions, allowing them to drift more than a mile downwind, compared to no more than 1,000 feet during the day.
Levels of ultrafine particles, nitric oxide and hydrocarbons are highest in the early morning, aided by a big injection of exhaust from morning rush hour. Those conditions usually break up once the sun has been up for a few hours and winds pick up again.
It’s also better to keep your windows closed in the early morning hours. You may think it’s safer to leave them open after traffic dies down at night, but recent research suggests the opposite.
Spending time in a car on the freeway can expose you to pollution levels five to 10 times higher than surrounding areas.
Even with the windows up, you could be breathing up to 80% of the levels of pollution found in traffic if your vehicle’s ventilation system is drawing in outside air.
So if you can, live closer to work, use public transit or take other steps to limit your driving time.
“That’s where we still get a big, big share of our exposure, especially if you’re driving very far in rush-hour traffic,” said Scott Fruin, a professor of preventive medicine at USC. “If you can reduce that, it helps a lot.”
When you’re in the car, roll up the windows and set your ventilation system to recirculate. That button can cut pollution to 20% of on-road levels.
The risk to your health can be compounded if you live near multiple pollution sources. Avoid living close to highway interchanges and freeway ramps, which regulators and scientists have identified as hot spots that can hit residents with twice as much as pollution.
Keep away from major intersections and stoplights, where vehicles spit out a lot of exhaust when drivers step on the gas, and copper dust and other toxic particles when they hit the brakes.
“There’s basically a big cloud of fairly concentrated pollution when the light turns from red to green,” Fruin said.
Also factor in whether you live in a smoggy area. If you live near a freeway in a community with higher smog levels, like the Inland Empire, you could get a double dose of dirty air from traffic emissions piling on top of regional pollution.
It’s especially unhealthful to live near freeways and roads frequented by diesel trucks, which spew many times more harmful gases and particles than cars. Diesel particulate matter, carcinogen-laden soot that deposits deep in the lungs, is responsible for the bulk of the cancer risk from air pollution and more than 1,000 early deaths a year in California.
Experts are most concerned about people living near ports, warehouse distribution centers and other freight corridors. Asthma rates and cancer risk there can be so elevated that physicians have labeled it the “diesel death zone.”
An air-monitoring station next to a truck-congested stretch of the 60 Freeway in Ontario had the highest levels of fine-particle pollution, or soot, of all near-roadway sites in the nation, according to 2015 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. About 217,000 vehicles a day passed by in 2015, more than 29,000 of them trucks.
The kinds of vehicles traversing your neighborhood can have a big effect on how much pollution you breathe.
Paulson and other scientists have detected huge disparities among L.A. neighborhoods, with some of the lowest levels of traffic pollution in wealthier enclaves such as West Los Angeles, where the roads have more new cars with cleaner engines, and fewer trucks.
Levels of ultrafine particles, the tiny, short-lived particles scientists measure as an indicator of recently emitted exhaust, are several times higher over in the Eastside neighborhood of Boyle Heights, which in addition to being carved up by a freeway interchange has more diesel trucks and older, higher-polluting cars on its surface streets.
The black road dust that deposits on the windows, shelves and patios of people living near traffic? If it’s big enough to see, it probably can get into your mouth or nose, and not much farther than that.
Clean it up, especially if it’s dark or sooty in color, said Fruin, the USC professor. “If you run your finger on your windowsill and it’s black, that’s a bad sign because it means you’re getting a lot of diesel soot.”
More important, soot can be an indication of traffic pollution you can’t see but may be breathing in. Scientists are especially concerned about ultrafine particles, exhaust pollutants less than one-thousandth the width of a human hair. They’re so tiny they can lodge deep in the lungs and move into bloodstream, where they may harm the heart, brain and other organs.
Ultrafine particles are suspected of causing some of the illnesses among people living near traffic, but more research is needed to say for certain.
Cars and trucks keep getting cleaner, but don’t count on electric vehicles bringing an end to traffic-related health problems.
Switching to zero-emission vehicles only gets rid of tailpipe-generated pollution. It does nothing to reduce non-exhaust pollutants, including dust from brake pads and tires that contains toxic metals, rubber and other compounds that are kicked up into the air.
Scientists trying to pinpoint the most harmful agents in traffic pollution are just beginning to study the health effects of those non-tailpipe pollutants.
“The switch to electric vehicles will certainly reduce the public’s exposure to engine-related emissions,” said Ed Avol, a professor of preventive medicine at USC. “But this other kind of pollution generated by the frictional forces of tires and brakes and from lubricating oils is likely to remain in some form for years to come.”
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Times staff writer Jon Schleuss contributed to this report.
Love fish markets as much as we do? We collaborated with other travel photographers to curate the world’s best fish markets so you can get your fish fix too! Some photos have been edited by us and may not reflect the style of the photographer.
Author’s Note: In writing this post, we recognized that certain cultural practices might be considered controversial. We’ve offered links throughout the article to help you make your own decisions. As always, shop responsibly! Overfishing poses serious threat to our oceans. Learn more about sustainable seafood on GoodFishGuide.org.
2019 Update: Tsukiji Fish Market is officially closed after 83 years in operation! It’s been relocated and now runs under the name Toyosu Fish Market.
“With 900+ vendors selling off 2,888 tons of seafood each day, the Tsukiji Fish Market is the world’s largest fish market. Go for the daily tuna auction** or simply wander the congested web of stalls for a distinctly Japanese experience.” – Taylor of Travel Outlandish
Where: Tokyo, Japan
What to Eat: Maguro (Bluefin Tuna)
Other Info: The inner market of Tsukiji opens to the public at 9am and winds down by 10am. You’ll need to time this trip well to make the most of it. Arrive early for the best breakfast donburi of your life at the outer market!
Read More: Take a look at our other articles from Tokyo
** Should bluefin tuna be listed as an endangered species? Read more on NPR.
“The Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul is a smorgasbord of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. It’s the largest fish market in Korea, and houses over 700 vendors selling fresh and dried seafood.” – Katie of Around the World in KT Days
Where: Seoul, South Korea
Known for: Sannakji (Live Octopus)**
Other Info: Noryangjin Fish Market is best visited in the early hours of the morning (before 6am ) when the wholesale vendors are auctioning off their goods. It’s open year-round and all day, but the early morning will be the most lively.
** Is eating sannakji cruel or cultural experience? Check out this article on NPR and decide for yourself.
“In addition to the freshest fish – which the sellers are known to toss back and forth sometimes when things get slow – this huge covered market also has some spectacular fruit and produce.” – Carole of Berkeley and Beyond
Where: Seattle, Washington, USA
Known for: Dungeness Crab
Other Info: The market is least crowded before noon. Plan to have lunch in one of the restaurants in the complex.
“You’ll find one of the world’s best fish markets in Essaouira. Once the blue fishing boats have floated back into the harbor, order up the days freshest fish from one of the waterfront stalls.” – Taylor of Travel Outlandish
Where: Essaouira, Morocco
Known for: Sardina (Sardines)
Other Info: Go with a local to ensure you get today’s catch and not leftovers from yesterday!
“Apart from the great variety of fish, in the morning, vendors in the fish market try to attract huge white birds to fly close. They also feed pink dolphins** that swim close from the river.” – Gábor of Surfing the Planet on touring the Amazon River
Where: Santarém, Brazil
Known for: P iraña (Pirhana)
Other Info: Local people bring their fresh fish every morning so try to be there early.
** Feeding wildlife is unfortunately quite common practice in many parts of the world. Here’s an article from National Geographic on why this is harmful.
“Seagulls squawking overhead, a pungent smell of fish in the air, people dressed in all the colours of the rainbow with bowls of fish balanced on their heads, the sights, sounds and smells of Tanji Fish market overload your senses, as the equally colourful pirogues (the local fishing boats) are unloaded in a sparkling sea.” – Kat of Travel with Kat
Where: Tanji, The Gambia
Known for: Perch for use in fish benechin
Other Info: The best time to visit is around 4pm when the market is at its most hectic.
“The Palamós Fish Market is a must-visit for its ultra-fresh seafood and proximity to a fish auction and the Museo de la Pesca.” – Mindi of 2foodtrippers
Where: Costa Brava, Spain
Known for: Gambas de Palamós (Palamós Prawns)
Other Info: The Palamós Fish Market opens at 5pm after the local fishermen return with fresh fish. Visitors can watch the daily fish auction before shopping for fish at the market.
Read More: Check out our other articles on Spain.
“The Valparaiso Fish Market isn’t particularly sprawling, but go for the spread of mussels and clams in a hyperlocal setting.” – Taylor of Travel Outlandish
Where: Valparaiso, Chile
Known for: Machas (Razor Clams)
Other Info: The latest catch comes in around mid-day so this is one market where it pays to come late.
Read More: Explore more of our articles on Chile.
“Ver-o-Peso market in Belém Pará, Brazil sits on the banks of the Guamá River which is one of the channels of the Amazon River. Ver-o-Peso was originally named “Casa do Haver-o-Peso” (Have the Weight House) then shortened to its present form. Ver-o-Peso celebrated it’s 390th birthday in March 2017 making it one of the oldest markets in the western hemisphere. (The city of Belém celebrated its 400th birthday in 2016) Since Ver-o-Peso fish market sits at the mouth of the Amazon River it has a vast variety of fresh and saltwater fish and the wider market contains a public açai market and fruits and vegetables often found only in the Amazon Basin.” – Jerome of Travel Boldly and Laudy of Brasil2Brazil
Where: Belém Pará, Brazil
Known for: Dorado (Mahi Mahi) or Gurijubu (Amazonian Catfish) for use in Peixe com Jambu e Tucupi.
Other Info: Ver-o-Peso is open every day. To get the best fish and most interesting people arrive early 7am-8am. There are fewer fish and less people on Saturday and Sunday.
“Ensenada is a fishing port Baja Norte and since 1958 the outdoor the fish market has sold a huge variety of fish . They are known not only for the quality and freshness of the fish , but the artful and meticulous method in which it’s displayed.” – Alexa of 52 Perfect Days