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Nearly 127 Million Americans’ Health Risks Rise as Air Quality Worsens

Health risk from degrading air quality

Worsening air quality and a warming climate will result in an increasing number of “bad air days” across the US in coming years and decades. Persistent air pollution puts millions of Americans at greater risk of suffering from a host of ailments.

According to new data gathered and analyzed by NRDC, the Natural Resources Defense Council, these increased risks range from eye, ear, nose, and throat problems to skin and eye irritation, heat stroke, and heart attacks,

The risks are particularly pronounced for young children, the elderly, people who work or exercise outdoors regularly and the 24 million-odd Americans who suffer from asthma, NRDC highlights.

Smoke rising from oil refinery. (California)

Nationwide, NRDC’s analysis indicates that in recent years the health of about 40 percent of Americans – nearly 127 million people – has been threatened by unhealthy levels of smog produced by fossil fuel power plants, vehicles, and emissions from other sources that create ground-level ozone in the atmosphere, along with unhealthy levels of pollen-producing ragweed. Rising average temperatures and sunlight compound the threats, accelerating the process and creating more smog. In addition, the drier, warming seasonal patterns in some parts of the country will extend “smog season.”

Furthermore, the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) driven by fossil fuel use enhance the growth of ragweed and other plants producing pollen. Extended warm seasons mean that pollen is produced for longer periods throughout the year. Taken together, more smog and more pollen will more than likely result in higher numbers of sick days for students, missed work days for parents and other adults, and a general reduction in productivity and quality of life – including premature deaths – for the population as a whole. Increased medical expenses are likely to result as well.

Mobilizing resources, taking action

Ragweed and Ozone impacts on air quality

NRDC is mobilizing its resources to take action to reduce the rising health risks associated with fossil fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of environmental pollution. In addition to producing an interactive map based on air quality and unhealthy air days nationwide, NRDC is calling on public and private sector leaders and citizens at all levels:

  • To help reduce smog-forming and carbon pollution from power plants, vehicles, and other sources, and
  • Demanding that our federal, state, and local governments prepare for the health threats of climate change.

Opposed by a Republican-led Congress, President Barack Obama and his administration had been taking executive actions to realize these aims. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan was the culmination of his administration’s efforts to reduce power plant emissions and pollution. Unfortunately, President Donald J. Trump and his administration, along with supporters in Congress, are intent on rescinding CPP.

According to NRDC’s count, fewer than one-third of US states have a plan in place to address the health impacts of climate change.

Worsening air quality across the US

Highway congestion and bumper to bumper cars for commuters

Allergist Dr. Gallen Marshall works primarily in Jackson, Miss., deemed the “Allergy Capital of the US” in fall 2016.

“Over the past decade, climate change has made my patients’ wheezing and sneezing steadily worse. Existing patients rush to visit me,” he says. “And new ones flood through my door,” says Dr. Marshall in an NRDC blog post.

Senior scientist and deputy director of NRDC’s Science Center Kim Knowlton adds that, while the situation in Jackson may be extreme, it is by no means unique.

“Rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and increases in heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are affecting air quality all across the United States in many ways that are not good for us,” Knowlton is quoted.

In addition to boosting production of ground-level ozone, smog, and pollen, the warming climate causes increases in outbreaks of mold and wildfires. Wildfires engulfed a record nine million acres of forested areas in California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and other western states in 2015, the environmental organization points out.

Furthermore, NRDC’s latest study reveals that about four in 10 Americans live in areas where both smog and pollen-producing ragweed threatens people’s health.

“Unless we take preventive measures, these shifts will compromise our quality of life, our work and school productivity, and our safety and health,” Knowlton said.

*Image credits: NRDC

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