Where can you breathe easy in retirement? How to find a community with clean air.


As I write this, ominous, silent claxons are sounding for yet another local “air quality” alert this summer. That means lung-stinging ozone and dangerous levels of particulate matter — combined with heat and wildfire smoke from Canada — make it unsafe for folks with cardiac and respiratory issues to spend time outside.

I love being outdoors, but this caution is more pronounced as wildfire smoke from Quebec blanketed the skies of the Eastern U.S. The crimson sunsets are breathtaking, although the air quality is dangerous. Where can I move to get away from this ill wind when I retire?

The skyline of lower Manhattan was nearly obscured by smoke from Canadian wildfires in June.

AFP via Getty Images

When retirees start shopping for an ideal retirement locale, their lists include the usual staples: sunshine, cultural amenities and access to health care. While these factors are important, few consider local air quality.

Yet climate change and the addition of millions more vehicles can degrade air quality, shortening lives and aggravating existing respiratory and coronary conditions. Although much progress has been made in improving the air we breathe since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, air quality in some metropolitan areas has declined to such an extent that it regularly imperils public health.

Check out: Where’s the best place for me to retire? Tell MarketWatch what you want, and we’ll find the right place for you

Millions breathe dirty air

According to the American Lung Association’s latest “State of the Air” report, “nearly 36% of Americans — almost 120 million people — still live in places with failing grades for unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution.” While this is nearly 18 million fewer people breathing unhealthy air compared to last year’s report, it still sounds a siren for those who shouldn’t be exposed to specific pollutants.

We used to take clean air for granted throughout most of North America. But in an era of global warming and pollution from multiple sources and wildfires, air has become a prime health concern, especially for older adults and people with respiratory and heart conditions.

What should concern people living in or moving to a place with consistently dirty air? Ozone, public health officials warn, is one of the greatest threats to those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which makes it harder to breathe and can lead to death.

See: We want clean air and a pastoral life — where should we retire on a budget of $40,000 a year?

Small particles, big trouble

Pulmonologist Dr. Meredith McCormack, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, says particles that are two-and-one-half microns or less in width (known as “PM 2.5″) can “go beyond the lungs and enter the bloodstream,” which poses a risk for heart attacks and strokes.

McCormack notes that both ozone and fine particulates are linked to “strong evidence that they are harmful to health” for those suffering from a wide range of ailments, from asthma to diabetes.

The worst metropolitan areas for air pollution typically have abundant highways, industry and low winds. The regions with the most polluted air are Los Angeles, San Diego and the San Joaquin Valley in California as well as Phoenix, Denver and Houston.

All told, California cities occupy more than half of the slots on the “worst-25 cities” list for ozone, according to the Lung Association. Bakersfield, California, was among the three worst areas for ozone and year-round and short-term particle pollution.

Plus: I want year-round outdoor living — dry summers and no snow — on $4,000 a month. Where should I retire?

Clean-air communities

Do you want to relocate to locales with the cleanest air? You’ll have to log some miles. The cleanest cities were in Hawaii; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Wilmington, North Carolina, on the year-round particle pollution scale. Albany, New York; Asheville, North Carolina; and Bangor, Maine, scored the best on ozone.

When considering moves to more out-of-the-way places, of course, don’t forget other key factors such as health care access, transportation and amenities.

According to ALA spokesperson Katherine Pruitt, the best way to use the association’s ratings is to “check grades by county and city and look at the trend line and changes over time.” Some metro areas have improved while others have gotten worse. When considering relocation, also consider factors you may not see in air ratings or on a map.

“Transportation is a major source of air pollution in metro areas,” Pruitt adds, “including truck depots.” Areas with heavy industry and big polluters like refineries will also impact local air quality.

Related: Climate change keeps making wildfires and smoke worse. Scientists call it the ‘new abnormal.’

Climate change effects

Generally speaking, climate scientists predict that cities in hot, humid or torrid climates will experience the worst air conditions as the planet continues to warm. Drought, wildfires and extreme heat and humidity are powerful contributing factors. Internationally, cities in South Asia are suffering the most, especially from increased ozone levels, reports a recent “State of Global Air” study.

“The health burden of ozone-attributable COPD is rising in countries with aging populations,” according to the State of Global Air Initiative. “The growth and aging of populations accounts for much of the increase in COPD-related deaths in countries across Asia.” Yet poor air quality impacts nearly every population suffering from a wide range of conditions from asthma to emphysema.

If your doctor tells you that clean air is a priority for your health, you have plenty of desirable retirement locales to choose from on the Lung Association’s “Cleanest Cities” report card. Keep in mind that these ratings change every year and few, if any, places are immune from the effects of climate change and dirty air. Some local conditions may improve while others decline.

In some places, data may be incomplete. For example, I tried to find particulate pollution ratings on my home county and the ALA said it wasn’t reported. Not all locales have monitoring stations.

Also see: Nearly half of U.S. tap water contains ‘forever chemicals’ or PFAS. Who is most at risk?

How to get real-time air quality information

A number of apps provide timely local air quality information. The Lung Association recommends AirNow, which is available online and via a phone app. Powered by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air-quality data, the free service gives overall air quality ratings that are searchable by ZIP code, city and state. It also provides information in Spanish. A “recent trends” graphic shows air quality over the past few days.

Don’t look at the Air Quality Index numbers, however, without some context. You need to know the range of the scale — none of them top out at 100. Then you need to know what the numbers mean. Don’t be flummoxed if there’s no rating for the area you are researching. Not every locale has air quality monitors or full data on all major pollutants.

On one recent day, for example, the EPA’s AirNow app posted a “108″ rating for my town, meaning the air was unhealthy. The was largely due to ozone, which is particularly dangerous for “people with lung disease such as asthma, children and teens, older adults, and people who are routinely active outdoors for six or more hours a day.” It offered the following tips to reduce your exposure:

  • Choose less-strenuous activities (like walking instead of running) so you don’t breathe as hard.

  • Shorten the amount of time you are active outdoors.

  • Be active outdoors when air quality is better.

  • Invest in a high-quality indoor air filtering system.

In any case, do your homework when considering relocation or outdoor activities. It won’t take much time, but it can certainly make a difference in terms of quality of life.

Read next: The cost of extreme heat in the U. S.? 235,000 ER visits and $1 billion in healthcare bills this summer alone.

John F. Wasik is the author of 19 books, including “The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around America’s Unsustainable American Dream” (Wiley, 2009). He’s working a new book entitled “A Natural Neighborhood,” which focuses on hyperlocal climate action. 

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, ©2023 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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