By Gary Fitzgerald
Are you breathing clean air? Chances are you’re not — no matter where you live.
Health effects of climate change and air pollution are increasingly a serious worldwide problem. A recent report by the World Health Organization says air pollution kills 7 million people every year and 93 percent of children under the age of 15 breathe so much polluted air it puts their health and development at risk.
If you or your child have asthma, air pollutants breathed into the lungs can trigger or worsen symptoms.
As government officials and scientists debate climate change policy and the impact on health, people with asthma and allergies can take matters into their own hands by minimizing the effects of climate change in their daily lives and promoting clean air in their communities. Work with your healthcare provider to identify and avoid symptom triggers. Make your home or business more energy efficient. Advocate for ways to reduce air pollution.
Here’s what we know:
- A primary pollutant is fine particulate matter, a mix of solid and liquid droplets that get into the air via emissions from factories, power plants and vehicles (including airplanes). Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot or smoke, are large enough to be visible; others are microscopic. When inhaled, these particles can affect the body’s heart and lungs, causing serious health issues.
- Emissions also send up into the air large levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, which are then trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere. As a result, the planet cannot cool off, altering our weather patterns.
- Mild winters cause plants, flowers and trees to bloom earlier, releasing more pollen and mold spores into the air and leading to longer and more potent allergy seasons. Both pollen and mold spores are common asthma and allergy triggers.
- Air pollution can reach harmful levels — and lead to a greater risk for asthma flares and allergy symptoms — when temperatures rise in the spring and summer, days are longer and air becomes more stagnant. Heat waves can also trigger asthma flares.
- When power plant, factory and vehicle emissions mix with heat and sunlight, it forms smog (also called ground level ozone) — another powerful asthma irritant most prevalent in urban areas.
Here’s what you can do:
- Talk with your healthcare provider about how to prevent symptoms on days when the pollen counts are high or air quality is poor. Make sure you have an updated Asthma Action Plan and know what triggers to avoid. If breathing problems occur outside, ask if you need to adjust your medication.
- Monitor local air quality reports every day and take warnings seriously. Visit the National Allergy Bureau at aaaai.org/nab for pollen counts and the Environmental Protection Agency’s www.airnow.gov for daily air quality updates in your hometown.
- Stay inside if possible when pollen counts are high or air quality is poor. Avoid or limit strenuous outdoor activity to early morning hours when pollen and ozone levels tend to be lower. Instead of jogging outdoors, work out at a fitness center or take a power-walk through a shopping mall.
- Minimize allergens and irritants inside your home, especially the bedroom. Keep doors and windows closed as much as possible. Air conditioning keeps air cool and dry; electrostatic, pleated or allergy-proof filters help reduce circulation of allergens. Shower in the evening to remove pollen that collects on your body or in your hair, and put your clothes in the wash.
- Help slow climate change by using less energy at home or choosing renewable energy. Seal and insulate your home. Mow your lawn in the evening to prevent ozone formation during the day, or use an electric mower. Turn off lights and unplug TVs, computers and gadgets when not in use. Use energy-efficient light bulbs. Consider installing solar panels on your roof – although expensive, they may be well worth it in the long run, depending on your family’s finances.
- Reduce pollution from motor vehicles by carpooling when possible. Don’t idle your car when parked. Take public transit or ride a bike to work. On hot days, refuel your car in the evening so gas vapors don’t linger in the air and contribute to ozone pollution. When purchasing your next car, consider buying a fuel-efficient car or electric vehicle.
How One City Is Fighting Back Against Climate Change
Springfield, Massachusetts is regularly listed among the worst cities for asthma and allergies in the United States. It’s reported that asthma affects 16 percent of the population (compared to 10.8 percent in the state) and 20 percent of schoolchildren in Springfield Public Schools.
Why is Springfield’s asthma rate so high? It’s a combination of factors, including air quality. The city sits in a valley in western Massachusetts and air pollution arrives from the south and west, coming from as far away as New York and Pennsylvania. Two major highways cross through residential neighborhoods, many with homes more than 75 years old.
“Air pollution settles in our valley,” says Sarita Hudson, manager of the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, which brings together healthcare organizations, public health agencies, community groups and others to address asthma in Springfield and other towns in western Massachusetts. “There’s traffic-related air pollution. And with older homes, there are problems with mold, pests and poor ventilation,” which can trigger asthma symptoms.
A series of unusual weather events in recent years, including a deadly, destructive tornado in June 2011 and a major snowstorm five months later, convinced the city to be more proactive on climate change.
The Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition partnered with Springfield Climate Justice Coalition and is working with the city on climate action programs that take into account the needs of residents and businesses. Hudson gives presentations on how people with asthma and allergies are impacted by climate change.
Continued grant funding is key to sustaining progress, she says.
“What can we do to encourage urban agriculture? What can we do to encourage people to be more energy efficient? A city department did a great job making our public schools more energy efficient. We’d love to see that kind of plan implemented in all city buildings,” Hudson says.
“The fact that we have been directly impacted in this area makes climate change more real to people,” she adds. “We’ve worked very hard to raise awareness of asthma and how to address triggers. People with asthma are thinking, ‘Climate change will impact me more.’ The air quality and air pollution here has made people receptive to this issue.”