Should You Be Worried About Your Health When Visiting US National Parks?

PHOTO: Kris Wiktor/Shutterstock

The air… it’s bad.

National Parks are a great vacation idea for getting out of the smog of the city and relaxing in the fresh air. But, a report recently released by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) found that the air in most of the United States’ national parks might not be as fresh as we thought. Just how bad is the air in the great outdoors? Around 96 percent of national parks suffer from air pollution, 85 percent have air that is unhealthy to breathe. And it’s not just the air that’s affected. The study also found that 88 percent of National Parks have soil and water that’s polluted enough to impact the local plants and animals.

“When people think of iconic parks like Joshua Tree or the Grand Canyon, they think of unspoiled landscapes and scenic views. I think they would be shocked to know that these are actually some of our most polluted national parks,” says Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the NPCA.

Which Parks Are Affected the Most?

While nearly all of the 400+ national parks in the United States are affected by some degree of air pollution, there are several that stand out from the pack. Based on the NPCA’s data on how climate change and a park’s pollution levels have affected the air quality, plants and animals, 97 national parks suffered “significant” levels, the highest of the NPCA’s three rating categories. SFGate reports that in California alone, Redwood National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Yosemite National Park, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks have a “significant” amount of damage from climate change, pollution, and unhealthy air.

Some of the other popular parks that fell into this grim group are:

  • Shenandoah National Park
  • Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
  • Cuyahoga Valley National Park
  • Natchez Trace Parkway
  • Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
  • Big Thicket National Preserve
  • Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield
  • Dinosaur National Monument
  • Gateway National Recreation Area

Should You Be Worried About Visiting?

You don’t have to cancel your trip to national parks, but it is important to do a little bit of pre-trip research on where you’re going and how the area is affected. Keep in mind that children, the elderly, those who plan to exercise outdoors, and people with asthma or other respiratory issues are more susceptible to the ill effects of poor air quality than others. Also, know that pollution levels in each national park depend on the area and the season. Before you travel, be sure to check The National Park Service’s Twitter account, where the agency posts updates regarding air quality health advisories for certain parks.

What’s Being Done to Fix This?

The national parks themselves are taking action. Arcadia National Park, for example, has established a shuttle service. Yosemite, Grand Teton, and Denali National Parks have pilot programs to reduce landfill waste. As more parks fight against pollution and climate change, the National Park Service monitors the air quality in most parks by tracking ozone, sulfur and nitrogen buildup in soils and waters, and visibility trends. Fans of the National Parks can also take action by following the steps in the NPCA’s full report.