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Is our air quality getting better or worse?

Generally, it's gotten much better except in Florida and areas susceptible to wildfires (Colo, Western US).

Data: EPA; Note: A concentration below 12 micrograms per cubic meter is considered healthy; Chart: Axios Visuals

Air quality in the Chicago metro area, as measured by fine particle pollution, has improved since 2012, but is still higher than the national average, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj report.

Why it matters: Fine particles, generated from fossil fuel-burning and other sources, can enter our bodies when we breathe, making their way to the lungs or bloodstream and causing myriad health problems.

They are linked to nearly 11,000 excess deaths across the U.S. annually, by one estimate.

Non-white and low-income Americans are at a higher risk of death from exposure to fine particle pollution compared to other groups, per a 2022 study published in Nature.

Fine particles — also known as PM2.5 due to their tiny size of 2.5 micrometers — are the most hazardous form of particulate matter.

By the numbers: The three-year rolling annual average concentration of the pollution across Chicago amounted to 9 micrograms per cubic meter as of 2021 (the latest year for which data is available), compared with 11 in 2012.

Concentrations below 12 micrograms per cubic meter are considered healthy, the EPA says — though it is seeking to tighten that standard.

Flashback: In March, the Guardian released an analysis showing that Northwest Indiana and parts of Chicago's South and West Sides had the third and fourth worst particulate air pollution in the nation.

The big picture: Air quality generally improved nationwide during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in part because fewer people were driving.

But as the pandemic ebbs and people's behaviors and activities return to normal, air quality nationally is worsening accordingly.

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