America’s 10 Most Toxic Cities

Imagining how unspoiled the American landscape was just a few short centuries ago, it is sad to say that, in terms of pollution and toxins, we’ve come a long, long way. With everything else we have accomplished, we have built so much industry that we’re literally choking on it.

For Forbes’ annual list of America’s 10 Most Toxic Cities, they looked at the 80 largest metropolitan areas and ranked them on five different indicators. Three of those measures–air quality, water quality and Superfund sites (abandoned areas that contain hazardous waste)–came from Sperling’s Best Places, which gathers health and quality-of-living indexes for U.S. cities. The other two indicators came from the Environmental Protection Agency: how many days in the year that the Air Quality Index exceeded 100, and the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which tracks chemicals released, treated or managed by manufacturers. They also included water quality concerns as reported by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

While an East Coast Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA)–and not New York City, by the way–grabbed the top spot, four areas in California cinched other places in the top ten, compliments of smog.

Forbes’ notes that if you reside in one of these areas, you don’t need a gas mask or an escape plan, although “it pays to be aware of the risks in your area. For example, the EPA says when the Air Quality Index for an area climbs above 100 (ratings range from zero to 500, with zero being the best) it can bring on respiratory problems for people with lung disease, children and older adults. Above 150, everyone can suffer.” Many, many cities never see a single day a year when the AQI is above 100, but one area on the list had 43 such days!

Here are which cities which made the top ten, and the contributing factors that got them there.

10. Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.
MSA: Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, Calif.
Number of unhealthy air quality days (2009): 16
Pounds of on-site toxic releases reported (2009): 1.3 million
EWG top water concerns: Total haloacetic acids; nitrates; perchlorate

9. Salt Lake City, Utah
Number of unhealthy air quality days (2009): 15
Pounds of on-site toxic releases reported: 130.4 million
EWG top water concern: Total haloacetic acids

8. St. Louis, Mo.
MSA: St. Louis, Mo./Ill.
Number of unhealthy air quality days (2009): 1
Pounds of on-site toxic releases reported: 22.3 million
EWG top water concern: Total haloacetic acids

7. Houston, Texas
MSA: Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, Texas
Number of unhealthy air quality days (2009): 1
Pounds of on-site toxic releases reported (2009): 54.8 million
EWG top water concern: Alpha particle activity

6. Los Angeles, Calif.
MSA: Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif.
Number of unhealthy air quality days (2009): 14
Pounds of on-site toxic releases reported (2009): 3.8 million
EWG top water concerns: Arsenic; total trihalomethanes; nitrate; total haloacetic acids

5. Baton Rouge, La.
Number of unhealthy air quality days (2009): None
Pounds of on-site toxic releases reported (2009): 33.6 million
EWG top water concern: N/A

4. New York, N.Y.
MSA: New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, N.Y./N.J./Pa.
Number of unhealthy air quality days (2009): 5
Pounds of on-site toxic releases reported (2009): 4.1 million
EWG top water concerns: Total haloacetic acids; dieldrin; total trihalomethanes

3. Fresno, Calif.
Number of unhealthy air quality days (2009): 26
Pounds of on-site toxic releases reported (2009): 338,000
EWG top water concern: Nitrates

2. Bakersfield, Calif.
Number of unhealthy air quality days (2009): 43
Pounds of on-site toxic releases reported (2009): 2.2 million
EWG top water concern: N/A

1. Philadelphia, Pa.
The sprawling Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington MSA, including parts of four states (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and one county in Maryland), is home to more than 50 Superfund sites, which is what pushed it to the number one toxic spot in the country

MSA: Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, Pa./N.J./Del./Md.
Number of unhealthy air quality days (2009): 2
Pounds of on-site toxic releases reported (2009): 11.3 million
EWG top water concern: Total trihalomethanes

Related:
7 Most Toxic Places to Live in the World
World’s Rivers Threatened by Human Impact
Cancer in Pets, Wildlife and Fish

189 comments

Kamryn M.
Kay M.4 years ago

noted.

Kamryn M.
Kay M.4 years ago

noted.

Jan W.
Jan W.5 years ago

With all the fuss over California's environmental laws (from anti-environmentalists) you'd think they'd noticed that more cities in CA made this list than any other state...

Mitch F.
Mitch F.5 years ago

I use to live in NYC and had terrible breathing problems, I moved to Albuquerque, NM and problems fixed! I love New Mexico

Carol Janchenko
Carol Janchenko5 years ago

oh, my :( Thanks for sharing

Joni Wharton
Joni Wharton5 years ago

I"m living in sunny Florida (unfortunately summer's are humid) but definately can't complain after seeing the places listed here that are toxic. Pretty scarey! Time to concentrate on efforts to clean up our planet!!

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener5 years ago

Sad!

Tim Cheung
Tim C.5 years ago

thanls.

Sandy P.
Sandy P.5 years ago

Why is California always leading these lists?

Peggy Drake
Peggy Drake5 years ago

Don't think you're immune from air problems if you live in the country or a small town. In the Baltimore area the worst air quality is in the middle of a field in a rural portion of a suburban county. You don't inherently deserve to have cleaner air just because you live in a smaller place. I really distain the anti-city sentiments that pervade many of the comments here. I'll take city living in a second.