DECATUR — Lauri Hinton sees it when students come to her school nurse's office with breathing trouble or itchy eyes. Dr. Howard Beede knows it will lead to increased business for his allergy and asthma practice each fall.
The putrid smell and plumes of smoke hovering over Decatur's downtown are pumped out by factories that produce everything from agricultural products to iron car parts.
But Decatur is far from alone in suffering from pollution and the greatly increased possibility of health risks for residents, an Associated Press analysis of federal data found.
More than 280 Illinois neighborhoods are among those nationwide where the air is the most unhealthy because of industrial air pollution, the study found. That ranks Illinois third nationally, behind only Pennsylvania (388) and Ohio (368), with most other states far behind.
Five Illinois neighborhoods were among the nation's 30 riskiest. Twelve were ranked in the top 100 nationwide, including two in Decatur and four in Granite City, near St. Louis.
The AP study looked at data provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that uses emission reports from industrial plants to calculate health risk scores for long-term exposure to air pollution.
The study found that minorities and the poor in Illinois were more likely to live in these high-risk neighborhoods than their general population numbers would suggest.
Of the highest-risk neighborhoods in Illinois, an average of more than 20 percent of people there are in poverty. Hispanics and blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to live in the areas.
Fewer than half of Illinois' high-risk neighborhoods were in Cook County, home to Chicago.
State and local officials say the results raise concerns but insist Illinois has made great improvements in air quality over more than 30 years.
"Our programs are working," said Jim Ross, manager of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's air pollution control division. "The air in Illinois is getting better, and the numbers show that."
Environmental activists say such improvements haven't been enough.
"It really drives home the need for more work to be done to try to combat these sources of air pollution," said Jonathan Goldman, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. "I think that is one of those problems that is so pervasive, it is hard to understand the scope of it."
Hinton, the school nurse, says from 15 percent to 20 percent of students at William Harris Elementary have asthma or allergy problems. The school stands just a few blocks from a foundry and an industrial park.
"If you had an educated guess, a lot of them have asthma because of the area here," Hinton said.
Linda Kehart of the Macon County Health Department stressed that Decatur's air quality has improved with leaf burning bans and other efforts. Improving indoor air quality and encouraging people with breathing problems to seek treatment is also a priority, she said.
"Certainly, it is not a dead issue, ever," Kehart said. "It's so involved."
Granite City Mayor Ed Hagnauer said he was surprised by his city's numbers but knows the air is cleaner than it was when orange clouds hung over the steel mills and foundries downtown years ago.
"There's always a concern for us," Hagnauer said. "But we do know that things progressively get better. … Nobody ever likes to hear those numbers."
State officials say they're working hard to monitor plant emissions and issue citations or even shut down plants that don't follow strict regulations. Illinois' air quality is good or moderate more than 90 percent of the year, Ross said. The state also is crafting tighter clean-air regulations.
But Goldman said more needs to be done, especially to clean up emissions at coal-fired power plants. He hopes the new study will "shine a little bit more light on how extensive the problem is."