The 12 Most Polluted States in the US—And Their Effects on Human Health
Page Reviewed and Edited by Dave Halpern, Mesothelioma Attorney
Where you live matters when it comes to health. Some states are more polluted than others. Toxins in the air, water, soil, and even buildings increase the risks of health conditions, including cancer. The rankings change over time, but some states consistently come out on top.
The current list considers air pollution as a major issue but also pollutants in the soil, water, and building materials that impact the health of residents and workers. Some jobs are riskier than others because of the potential for workplace pollution and chemical exposure. It also looks at the health impacts and what you can do about being a victim of industrial pollution.
Pollution affects many people, but some more than others. If you suffer health issues related to industrial toxins, you may be able to take legal action. Companies can be held responsible for the harm they cause.
Louisiana often sits at the top of the list of the most polluted states due to a long industrial past and current industrial sites, including petrochemical production, chemical plants, and shipyards.
Type of Pollution: Louisiana ranks on top for air pollution that includes ozone and particles released from industrial sites. Waterways in the state are among the most polluted in the country and contain nitrates, dioxin, arsenic, mercury, and benzene. Louisiana’s economy has long relied on oil refineries and shipyards, both of which used and contaminated workers, soil, and air with asbestos. Soil throughout the state has been contaminated by mud left behind by hurricanes, by landfills, and by industrial sites. Soil pollutants include oil, arsenic, lead, and wood and creosote treatment chemicals.
Impact on Human Health: Air pollutants in Louisiana put people at risk for all kinds of respiratory conditions, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Cancer is a serious health risk in the state. An area known as ‘Cancer Alley’ lies along the Mississippi river from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. In this region, people are more than 50 times more likely to develop cancer than the general U.S. population.
Nevada’s history of nuclear testing, natural minerals in the soil, mining, urban development, and industry put it second among the most polluted states.
Type of Pollution: Las Vegas is the major contributor to the state’s poor air quality with greater-than-average days with unhealthy levels of ozone. The city also has significant and growing particle pollution from wildfires, coal-burning power plants, and diesel engines. Many of Nevada’s water sources are contaminated by fertilizer runoff, pesticides, and industrial chemicals in developed areas. Many residents use artesian wells to tap groundwater, which is dangerously polluted with nitrates in some areas. Nuclear testing has left areas of soil in Nevada contaminated with radioactive materials. Mining also continues to contribute to pollution in the state. The industry releases more toxic waste here than in any other state, including mercury, lead, arsenic, and asbestos.
Impact on Human Health: According to a study, air pollution in Nevada amounts to nearly $900 million in healthcare costs per year as well as 97 deaths. It contributes to and worsens respiratory conditions like COPD. Nitrates in drinking water can contribute to certain cancers, birth defects, and thyroid disease. Asbestos in Nevada’s soil gets disturbed by development, mining, and recreation, putting residents at risk of diseases like mesothelioma.
Indiana’s flourishing gas and oil industry has given it a reputation for pollution and poor air quality, while other industrial sites have contaminated water and soil.
Type of Pollution: The oil and gas industry in Indiana contributes significant to poor air quality, dumping particulates, benzine, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and other contaminates. Southwest Indiana is home to numerous coal-powered plants adding more particulates. Waterways are also significantly polluted from agricultural runoff of pesticides and fertilizers, industrial dumping, and stormwater runoff. PCB is a major pollutant in the state, which although no longer in use, persists. Lead in the soil is a major issue in many of Indiana’s industrial areas, including East Chicago as well as rural communities near old industrial sites.
Impact on Human Health: Air pollution in Indiana exacerbates respiratory conditions, including asthma and emphysema. It also increases the risk of developing lung cancer. PCBs in water are linked to cancer as well. Lead contamination in soil puts young children at major risk for long-term cognitive deficits.
The chemical industry has been a major contributor to pollution in Delaware’s air, water, and soil, while industries in other states also factor in the state’s ranking.
Type of Pollution: The American Lung Association recently gave Delaware’s three counties grades of C, D, and F for ozone in the air. The state also has significant particle pollution, especially near Philadelphia. The Delaware River Basin is polluted by runoff from mines and fossil fuel industries, toxic releases from industrial sites, sewage, and farm and construction site runoff. Chemicals in the water include lead, coper, and benzene. The chemical industry in the state has been responsible for leaks, spills, and accidents that pollute water and soil.
Impact on Human Health: The air pollution, largely coming from other states, contributes to respiratory conditions. Water pollution, from both out-of-state facilities, and in-state chemical plants, may contribute to a number of cancers.
Utah’s air puts residents at risk of respiratory illnesses, while toxic algae and metals contaminate water and soil.
Type of Pollution: Utah ranks high for ozone pollution and particulate matter in the air. This is caused by industry but also a temperature inversion common in the winter that traps ozone. Agriculture, stormwater runoff, and wastewater treatment plants contribute to a major issue of nutrient pollution in Utah waterways. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus lead to dangerous algal blooms. Mining has also contaminated the water with toxic minerals, including selenium and asbestos.
Impact on Human Health: The recent study on air pollution in Utah found that it has decreased average life expectancy in the state by years. Water pollution caused by algae blooms can cause illness in animals and humans. The minerals and asbestos churned up by mining are known carcinogens.
Ohio has long been an industrial economy, which contributed to air, water, and soil pollution. These problems persist today, putting the state high on the pollution list.
Type of Pollution: Ohio ranks high for ozone and particulate matter due to power plants, vehicle exhaust, and industrial sites. Cincinnati, Cleveland, Akron, and Canton have some of the highest number of poor air quality days per year. All of Ohio’s waterways have some industrial contamination, especially PCBs, mercury, DDT, and lead. The Ohio River remains one of the most polluted waterways in the U.S. because of industrial leaks and dumping and wastewater discharge. Old buildings and industrial sites throughout the state continue to contaminate soil nearby and put people at risk of exposure to asbestos.
Impact on Human Health: People living in the cities with high air pollution days are at risk of developing respiratory conditions and may have an increased risk for lung cancer. The river contamination and industrial sites include several carcinogens.
Several of Oregon’s cities rank high for air pollution, while well water is contaminated with carcinogens in many areas.
Type of Pollution: The American Lung Association lists Eugene, Bend, Portland, and Medford among the worst cities in the country for spikes in air pollution. Contributors include the high number of wood-burning stoves used in the region and wildfires. Nearly three-quarters of residents use well water, which is often polluted with nitrates, arsenic, pesticides, and bacteria. The Willamette River is also a source of pollution for much of its stretch, including a ten-mile Superfund site. Industries have dumped into the river for decades, and it now contains PCBs, DDT, petroleum, and heavy metals. Military sites and industrial sites, including paper pulp plants, mines, and military sites have also contaminated the soil with asbestos, herbicides, DDT, and more.
Impact on Human Health: Air pollution in Oregon cities reduces life span and contributes to respiratory illnesses. The toxins found in well water in some parts of the state can cause cancer, miscarriages, thyroid disease, and birth defects. Soil toxins can leach into groundwater causing cancer and other illnesses. Leftover particles, like asbestos fibers, can contaminate the air, contributing to lung cancer and mesothelioma risk.
Tennessee has a serious air pollution problem, largely due to coal power plants and oil refineries. It also has some of the most polluted rivers in the U.S.
Type of Pollution: Coal-fired power plants contribute to Tennessee being named the 11th worst state for coal-based air pollution. The air in the state also contains mercury from industrial sites. Knoxville ranks among the worst cities in the state for particle air pollutants. Waterway pollution is an increasing problem in the state, with more rivers added to the list all the time. Wastewater and E. coli are the most common pollutants. The Tennessee River is the fourth most polluted river in the U.S. Soil contamination is less of an issue, but some sites contain lead and other contaminants. Older buildings and industrial sites also have residual asbestos.
Impact on Human Health: Air pollution is a serious health issue in Tennessee’s cities, especially for minorities. The only black-majority county, Shelby County, has the worst grade for air quality. Pollution worsens respiratory conditions like asthma. Industrial pollutants in water are carcinogens, which can find their way into drinking water. The E. coli in rivers and lakes can make people sick. Lead and asbestos in soil can harm developing children and increase the risk of cancer.
The industrial economy and reliance on automobiles and agriculture consistently lead to a high pollution ranking for Illinois.
Type of Pollution: The American Lung Association recently ranked Chicago the 18th most polluted city for ozone, giving it a grade of F in 2019. High ozone levels result from high temperatures and vehicle exhaust. Coal-fired plants in Illinois have contributed to significant mercury in the air. Groundwater around the state’s many coal ash dumpsites is polluted with arsenic, cobalt, lithium, and other contaminants. Nitrates also contaminate much of the groundwater because of fertilizer use on farms. Soil pollution is an issue around many industrial sites. Steel plants once thrived here and left behind heavy metals like manganese and some of the most toxic land in the state.
Impact on Human Health: Ozone pollution contributes to asthma, COPD, and other respiratory conditions. Mercury in the air is particularly harmful for children and pregnant women. Nitrates and other chemicals in ground water can cause cancer, thyroid disease, and birth defects. Toxic land sites put local residents at risk for certain cancers and other illnesses.
Alabama is one of the most polluted states in the country because of industrial sites, power plants, and coal mining.
Type of Pollution: Alabama ranked fifth in the nation in 2017 for the amount of toxins released into the air. Industrial sites account for these releases, including paper plants, power generation, steel plants, and livestock processing. Air pollution includes particles but also chemical carcinogens like dioxane, acetaldehyde, and butadiene. Coal-burning power plants and coal mines in the state contribute significantly to water pollution in Alabama. The state ranked second in 2017 for worst drinking water. Major contaminants are PFCs. Alabama’s shipping industry long used asbestos, leaving residue behind in the soil. A Monsanto plant in a rural part of the state left soil heavily contaminated with PCBs.
Impact on Human Health: High levels of air pollution shorten life span and cause or worsen asthma and other respiratory conditions. It can increase the risk of developing lung cancer. PFCs in drinking water can cause cancer and thyroid disease. The PCBs in soil have been shown to trigger high rates of diabetes in local residents.
Texas makes the list for its industrial economy, lax rules on pollution, and considerable illegal dumping of chemicals.
Type of Pollution: Particle air pollution in Texas is high because of vehicle use and also industrial sites, including coal power plants, oil refineries, and manufacturing facilities. The release of unauthorized pollutants in the state increased 155% from 2015 to 2019. Chemicals released include benzine, hydrogen sulfide, and particles. Texas also ranks first in the country for violating water pollution rules. This includes dumping wastewater high in E. coli. Soil, water, and air have all been contaminated in some places by harmful asbestos. The shipping and oil industries, in particular, used asbestos and contaminated local sites.
Impact on Human Health: Air particle and chemical pollution, especially in Texas cities, exacerbates respiratory conditions like asthma. Water pollution can make people sick due to the E. coli bacteria. Asbestos in past industrial sites increase the risks of local residents developing cancers like mesothelioma.
A long history of industry, coal production, and steel mills has left Pennsylvania a top state for air, water, and soil pollution.
Type of Pollution: Much of Pennsylvania’s economy relies on power generation. Coal-fired power plants and coke works release a lot of particles and chemicals into the air. Ozone is also an issue in the state. One-third of the state’s waterways are polluted to the point of being impaired. Chemicals and E. coli pollute these waterways from agricultural runoff, stormwater, and runoff from abandoned mines. Many of the state’s industrial sites used asbestos in the past and left soil at the sites contaminated.
Impact on Human Health: A recent study found that Pennsylvania leads the nation in premature deaths from air pollution. Particles and chemicals in the air cause and worsen respiratory conditions and may cause lung cancer. Contaminated water affects groundwater, putting residents at risk of exposure to carcinogens and harmful bacteria. Past workers and current local residents near industrial sites that used asbestos are at risk for related diseases, like mesothelioma.
Why You Should Care About Pollution in Your State
There are two main reasons to worry about pollution: environment and health. Air pollution is damaging to the environment for many reasons. In the air, many of the pollutants mix with water to create acids. Acid rain damages forests and animals. Greenhouse gases contribute to the warming of the climate, which impacts ecosystems and the plants and animals in them.
Water and soil pollution disrupt ecosystems in lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Wastewater and agricultural runoff cause algae blooms, which chokes out life underneath the water, including fish. Other pollutants, including carcinogens, harm aquatic life.
For human health, the harm can be obvious but also more subtle. Air pollutants contribute significantly to asthma, especially in children. It also triggers other respiratory conditions. Bacteria in water is a major pollutant due to wastewater runoff and can make people sick. Drinking water with certain chemicals can cause birth defects and cancer. Soil pollution harms human health by releasing heavy metals or carcinogens into the air and water.
What You Can Do to Mitigate Negative Effects of Pollution
Everyone can do their part to reduce pollution by conserving energy, recycling, and supporting sustainable companies, for instance. You can also take action to protect your family by moving somewhere with less pollution. In your own home, take steps to improve air quality and to be aware of local poor air quality days.
Finally, if your health has deteriorated because of pollution, you may be able to take legal action. Certain contaminants, like asbestos, can be linked back to specific polluters or companies that you can hold liable with a lawsuit. Companies and industries are responsible for most of the pollution we now live with, so holding them accountable is essential.
Page Reviewed and Edited by Dave Halpern, Mesothelioma Attorney
Dave Halpern is a Pennsylvania and New Jersey mesothelioma attorney with over 30 years of experience. He has investigated hundreds of cases and won numerous multimillion dollar settlements and verdicts for asbestos victims. Dave prides himself on working tirelessly to help his clients in their time of need.