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Air Quality Awareness Week 2024: Air Quality and Climate


Today is the third day of Air Quality Awareness Week, a week for discovering and learning how to better “Know Our Air.” Yesterday we talked about Asthma and Your Health. Today we will dive into air quality and climate, specifically the relationship between the two, the resulting impacts on human health, and what we can do about it.

Air quality and climate change are intertwined, a complex topic to break down into a short blog post, so this will be as simple as possible here, acknowledging some of the many concurrent issues affecting our quality of life on Earth. As the climate changes, the quality of the air we breathe worsens. To thrive, we must adapt, advocating for policy changes as well as individual actions to improve air quality which, in turn, improves health outcomes for people and our planet.

The temperatures recorded last year, in 2023, indicate it was the hottest year on record. This visualization from NASA shows how Earth’s temperature has increased since 1880, with the largest increase from the 1980s to the present. This spike in warmer temperatures is a result of increased greenhouse gas emissions, gasses released into Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat, contributing to the greenhouse effect, and making our planet warmer. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in 2021 President Biden announced The White House’s new target to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 50-52% by the year 2030. Additionally, a Long-Term Strategy Plan was also released in 2021 to set a path for net-zero emissions by the year 2050.

In addition to record heat, according to NASA’s & NOAA’s Global Temperature Report, last year also had 25 climate change related disasters in the US resulting in more than $1 Billion in damages per disaster. You likely remember the Western wildfires, the Canadian wildfires that brought smoky air to New York and even further to the southern parts of the US, or the floods, tornadoes, and excessive heat that plagued the American Midwest, South, and Southwest, including the 31 days of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit experienced in Phoenix, Arizona last year.

Changes to our weather and climate, bring changes to the quality of our air. When the air is not safe to breathe, our health suffers. Wildfires and droughts cause increases in particulate matter in the air. Particulate matter can trigger asthma attacks, contribute to cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks, decrease lung function, making it difficult for everyone to breathe, and in some cases even lead to premature death.

Particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, also known as PM2.5 or fine particles, are so small they easily infiltrate our bodies. Breathing them in, these fine particles settle deep within the lungs and enter the bloodstream, which can lead to serious health problems. To protect hearts and lungs from harmful PM2.5, it is important to monitor outdoor air quality, stay inside on bad air quality days, try to limit time exercising outdoors, and wear protective masks, such as N95 or higher-rated respirators.

Additionally, changes in precipitation and humidity can lead to mold in homes and buildings, another trigger for asthma. With longer periods of warm weather, another result of climate change, some areas are experiencing longer spring and summer seasons, meaning longer exposure to allergens such as pollen, further aggravating asthma and allergies.

When the outside air is highly polluted, it can quickly reduce the quality of the air inside your home or building. To improve air quality indoors, use an adequately sized HEPA air purifier, or build a DIY Corsi-Rosenthal box to filter the air. Some rooms may need more than one purifier or DIY box, depending on the size of the room. Keep windows and doors closed as much as possible on these bad air quality days to minimize polluted air from breezing indoors.

Vehicle emissions continue to be a major source of air pollution. In a press release from the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) in March of this year, AAFA praised the EPA for its new pollution standard for vehicles starting in 2027. The new standard will “will slash 7.2 billion metric tons of climate pollution, eliminating the equivalent of all tailpipe pollution for nearly four years, and would prevent 2,500 premature deaths, 5,800 cases of asthma, and 110,000 lost workdays.” Kenneth Mendez, AAFA’s President and CEO said, “By reducing emissions from cars and light trucks, the EPA’s new rule will improve the quality of life for the 27 million people in the United States with asthma. We’re hopeful additional standards for heavy-duty vehicles will be announced that continue to drive us toward a zero-emissions reality.”

Beyond national policies to address climate change and air quality, individuals and local communities can take action now, influencing positive change for better climate and health outcomes. For our readers in Alabama, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) recognizes that cars idling at schools during drop-off and pick-up times create a hazardous environment for school children. Pollution from vehicles can linger during the school day, affecting students and teachers with asthma or other respiratory conditions. ADEM provides signs encouraging drivers to turn cars off instead of idling in the carlines to “Protect young lungs at play.” Contact to reserve a sign for your school.

Other actions you can take today to improve climate change, air quality, and health:

  1. Consider alternatives for driving to reduce vehicle emissions

    1. Use public transportation, electric public transportation reduces even more air pollution

    2. Walk or bike when able to safely do so or consider driving a lower or no emission vehicle

  2. Conserve electricity by turning off lights when not in use and use energy efficient appliances

  3. Use renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power

  4. Plant trees

  5. Use portable HEPA air purifiers indoors and switch to the highest MERV-rated filter your HVAC system can support, preferably MERV 13 filters

  6. Reduce, reuse, recycle

  7. Raise awareness and support policies and practices that protect the health of people and the environment

To learn more about Air Quality and Climate, visit: Climate Change Impacts on Air Quality | US EPA

Stay tuned for more daily Air Quality Awareness Week blog updates; tomorrow we will discuss Air Quality and Environmental Justice.

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