Lyndsay Alexander is National Assistant Vice President of the Healthy Air Campaign at the American Lung Association.
As a mother and public health advocate, I believe every child has a right to grow up breathing air that won’t make them sick or possibly cut short their lives. Unfortunately, on a national level, we continue with policies that make the same polluting mistakes of the past, despite the evidence that our continued reliance on fossil fuels is a major driver of both pollution and climate change, which is making our air less healthy today—and into the future. The opportunity to grow up with healthy air is at risk.
Adding to the complexity of the challenges we face, a strong scientific consensus affirms that emissions of greenhouse gases from these same polluting sources – power plants, industrial facilities, vehicles, and more – is also undermining the stability of the earth’s climate with dangerous consequences for human health.
Thankfully, many state and local communities are moving ahead with solutions that will combat climate change, reduce pollution and improve health.
It’s important to understand that climate change and pollution harm everyone’s health, but puts some communities at a greater risk. For decades, reliance on fossil fuels has burdened the health of millions of people in the United States with toxic pollution – degrading the air we breathe and the water we drink. This burden is greater for communities—too often communities of color and Indigenous populations—located near polluting facilities or congested roadways.
Similarly, the far-reaching health consequences of climate change also harm us all, but with a greater impact on some populations. Groups such as children, older adults, pregnant women, people with pre-existing conditions or disabilities and those facing racism and other systemic disadvantages such as lower-incomes or inadequate access to health care are all at risk.
Climate change also threatens to undo decades of progress to reduce air pollution in the United States. How? Warmer temperatures enhance conditions for ozone pollution. More intense wildfires release particle pollution that can travel thousands of miles, leaving a trail of people struggling to breathe. In fact, according to the American Lung Association’s 2019 “State of the Air” report, more than 43% of the United States’ population live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particulate pollution, or both. These pollutants can cause asthma attacks, respiratory and cardiovascular harm, and early death. Particle pollution can also cause lung cancer.
Particulate pollution and ozone are exacerbated by climate change.
Additionally, warmer temperatures reduce air quality because they can lead to longer, more potent pollen seasons increasing the burden on those living with asthma and allergies and increases in extreme weather events can lead to dampness and flooding increasing the risks from mold and other airborne threats.
These are just a few of the ways climate change shapes the lives and health of millions of Americans today, erecting new barriers on the road to a world in which everyone has an opportunity to live a healthy life. Major peer-reviewed reports released within the past year highlight the alarming consequences of climate change from worsening drought and wildfires, longer and hotter heat waves, record-breaking floods, spread of diseases and upticks in dangerous air pollution.
The solution is clear. The toll of climate change will be tremendous if we don’t take steps to reduce the use of fossil fuels on an aggressive timeline and make significant investment in adaptation and preparedness of our public and environmental health systems. Doing so won’t just reduce harms, it can deliver health benefits. In fact, the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change concluded that, “Tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.” That’s one reason why trusted health and medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, American Lung Association, American College of Physicians, and the National Medical Association and others recently declared climate change a “health emergency” that demands immediate action, and outlines key steps that our nation’s policymakers at every level can take to protect health.
However, as we move forward we must also ensure that communities most directly affected by the health consequences of climate change – especially those communities facing multiple other burdens and injustices – are centrally involved in the development of these solutions. A shift away from burning fossil fuels to clean renewable energy sources can immediately benefit these communities that have been long overburdened by pollution.
We all have a stake in pushing for immediate action and working toward solutions that will protect and promote the health of our communities. The American Lung Association has identified five steps everyone can take to help reduce air pollution and fight climate change, below:
- Walk, bike or carpool. Combine trips. Use buses, subways, light rail systems, commuter trains or other alternatives to driving your car to help reduce air pollution from vehicles.
- Use less energy in your home. Most electricity generated creates air pollution. By reducing energy use, you can help improve air quality. Check out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s easy tips for conserving energy at home.
- Use hand-powered or electric lawn care equipment rather than gasoline-powered. Old two-stroke engines like lawn mowers and leaf or snow blowers often have no pollution control devices.
- Don’t burn wood or trash. Burning firewood and trash is a major source of particle pollution (soot) in many parts of the country.
- Get involved. Elected officials must continue working to reduce air pollution and to protect our health from the impacts of climate change. Share your story of why you support action to address climate change and #HealthyAirforAll.
Suggested citation: Alexander, Lyndsay. “Clean Air Is a Solution to Improve Our Health, the Climate and Advance Equity.” Health and Climate Solutions Blog: George Mason University. August 13th, 2019.