Air Quality Crisis: Climate change and policy failures endanger millions

This resource is part of a broader initiative to educate Americans about the multifaceted risks posed by climate change, from poor air quality to wildfires, flooding, and extreme heat.

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A groundbreaking study by the First Street Foundation has unveiled a looming air quality crisis across the United States, threatening to expose 125 million Americans to hazardous conditions by the mid-century. This revelation underscores the escalating impact of wildfire smoke, which is rapidly evolving from a regional concern, predominantly on the West Coast, to a national health emergency.

Historically, the wrath of wildfires and their resultant smoke was a phenomenon largely confined to the western states. However, the recent spread of thick, orange haze from Canadian wildfires across the Northeast and Midwest in June 2023 has shattered this notion. New York City, enveloped in smog, found itself atop the world’s worst air quality rankings, a scenario unfathomable to many of its residents until now.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) utilizes the Air Quality Index (AQI) to communicate air quality levels to the public, with color codes ranging from green (good) to maroon (hazardous). The sight of red, purple, and maroon alerts across eighteen states from Montana to Georgia has served as a wake-up call to millions unaccustomed to such threats. Dr. Jeremy Porter from First Street Foundation notes, “A lot of people in the Midwest and the Northeast never really thought about the AQI. All of a sudden, it’s on the news every day.”

The First Street Foundation’s research offers a grim forecast: the number of Americans exposed to ‘unhealthy’ air quality days is expected to balloon from 83 million to 125 million within the next three decades. This projection is particularly alarming considering the strides made in air pollution control since the enactment of the Clean Air Act and the establishment of the EPA. Dr. Porter laments that the advancements in air quality over the past 20 years are being negated by the intensifying effects of wildfires, fueled by climate change.

The health implications of this deteriorating air quality are profound. Wildfire smoke, laden with fine particulate matter, poses severe risks not only to those with pre-existing health conditions but to the general population at large. The EPA links exposure to such pollutants with an increased incidence of respiratory diseases, heart conditions, strokes, lung cancer, and premature death. According to Dr. Porter, the regression in air quality could equate to “adding back a quarter of a million premature deaths, 200,000 heart attacks, [and] millions of additional hospital visits due to asthma.”

In response to these findings, experts like Professor Brian G. Henning from Gonzaga University’s Institute for Climate, Water, and the Environment emphasize the need for preemptive measures at the federal level. Henning advocates for a shift in focus from post-disaster response to disaster prevention, suggesting enhancements to Federal Emergency Management funding and programs like Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) to mitigate the effects of wildfires before they occur.

The challenges posed by climate change in regulating air quality starkly contrast with the relative ease of controlling industrial pollutants. Matthew Eby, founder and CEO of First Street Foundation, highlights the clear statistical signals indicating rapid increases in air pollutants, underscoring the urgent need for policy adaptation to the realities of a changing climate.

In an effort to raise public awareness and preparedness, First Street Foundation has developed Risk Factor, an online tool that enables users to assess the future air quality risks specific to their locations. This resource is part of a broader initiative to educate Americans about the multifaceted risks posed by climate change, from poor air quality to wildfires, flooding, and extreme heat.

As the United States grapples with the dual challenges of worsening air quality and climate change, the call for comprehensive policy reform and proactive climate action has never been more urgent. The findings from the First Street Foundation serve as a clarion call for collective action—from policymakers to communities and individuals—to address the root causes of air pollution and climate change, ensuring a healthier, more sustainable future for all.

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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.

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