Night time photo of methane gas pollution by factories. The flame is shown coming out of one stack and the background is blueish green.

Are you breathing clean air? Chances are you’re not — no matter where you live.

The health effects of climate change and air pollution are a serious worldwide problem. An estimated 262 million people, including 25+ million Americans, live with asthma. Air pollutants breathed into the lungs can trigger or worsen asthma and other respiratory diseases. Air quality can make a huge difference in how well you breathe.

A recent World Health Organization report says air pollution kills 7 million people every year. In addition, more than 90% of children under the age of 15 breathe so much polluted air it puts their health and development at risk.

As climate scientists and government officials debate climate change and the impact on health, people with asthma and allergies can take matters into their own hands. It may seem like air quality is beyond your control but there are actions you can take to minimize the effects of climate change in your daily life.

What we know about climate change, asthma and allergies

  • Fine particulate matter is one of the primary air pollutants that impact health. It is a mix of solid and liquid droplets that get into the air via emissions from factories, power plants and vehicles (including cars and airplanes). Particles such as dust, dirt, soot or smoke are large enough to be visible. Others are microscopic. When inhaled, these particles can be powerful asthma triggers. They affect breathing and lung function.
  • Emissions also send up into the air large levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gas, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. These emissions are then trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere. As a result, the planet is unable to cool off effectively from the sun. This alters our weather patterns. It can cause more dramatic weather events such as soaring temperatures, hurricanes, flooding, droughts and wildfires.
  • Mild winters cause plants, flowers and trees to bloom earlier. They release more pollen and mold spores into the air. This leads to longer and more potent allergy seasons. Both pollen and outdoor mold spores are common asthma and allergy triggers.
  • Air pollution can reach harmful levels when temperatures rise in spring and summer, the days are longer, and air becomes more stagnant. This can impact public health and lead to a greater risk for asthma flares and allergy symptoms. Heat waves can also trigger asthma flares. Researchers have found that on high-pollution summer days, children with asthma are 40 percent more likely to have respiratory problems than on unpolluted days.
  • When power plant, factory and vehicle emissions mix with heat and sunlight, it forms smog. (This is also called ground level ozone.) This is air that contains harmful chemicals and can irritate your respiratory system. It is a powerful asthma irritant especially common in urban areas.
  • Major transportation corridors create pockets where air pollution levels are higher than surrounding areas. These areas are usually in or near cities. They tend to house people with lower incomes and involve communities that are underserved with healthcare resources. Car and truck diesel exhaust has been linked to increased rates of asthma.

Photo of factory in a field

Tips to Manage Asthma and Allergies Caused by Climate Change

  • Talk with your healthcare provider about how to prevent asthma and allergy 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 your triggers to avoid. If breathing problems occur during weather changes, ask if you need to adjust your medication.
  • 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.
  • Keep outdoor allergens and irritants out of 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 can help reduce circulation of allergens. Shower every evening to remove pollen that collects on your body or in your hair. Do not re-wear clothes you wore outside without putting them in the wash first.
  • 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. Use energy-efficient light bulbs. Turn off lights and unplug TVs, computers and gadgets when not in use. 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 emissions from motor vehicles by carpooling when possible. Take public transit or ride a bike to work. If you must drive, don’t idle your car when parked. 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. Many electric vehicles are becoming more affordable in the United States.

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. 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. The Coalition 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.”

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. It 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 affected 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 Springfield 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 have worked very hard to raise awareness of asthma and address triggers. People with asthma are thinking, ‘Climate change will impact me.’ The air quality and air pollution here has made people receptive to this issue.”

Asthma, Advocacy and the Clean Air Act

Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has driven cuts in air pollution across the United States. But many citizens still live in areas where pollution levels often make the air dangerous to breathe. Unhealthy air can create a difficult barrier to asthma management.

Allergy & Asthma Network supports the need for clean air and strong air quality standards for both indoor and outdoor air.  We support the ongoing dialogue on climate change and health. And we oppose any attempts to block, weaken or delay protections against ozone, carbon and particle pollution.

Reducing environmental health hazards is one of Allergy & Asthma Network’s key advocacy issues. Find out how you can become an advocate with Allergy & Asthma Network.

Reviewed by:

Jay M. Portnoy, MD, FACAAI, is a board-certified pediatric allergist and immunologist and Director of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology at Children’s Mercy Hospitals & Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri. He is also Professor of Pediatrics in Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.