The importance of air quality
Adults breathe in about 4,000 gallons of air every day. The process supplies oxygen to our blood and organs. We can’t live without it. So it should come as no surprise that inhaling pollutants is bad for our health. But it’s impossible to understate the importance of air quality and just how critical it is to take actions that improve the air we breathe.
In the U.S., poor air quality causes more than 100,000 premature deaths per year. The health costs related to air pollution top $150 billion annually. Worldwide, it’s responsible for about 6.5 million annual deaths.
The health problems poor air quality can cause include cancer, cardiovascular disease, and of course asthma. That last ailment has increased with the rate of urbanization, and it’s especially bad among children who live in low-income urban centers.
Of particular concern is fine particulate matter. It’s 2.5 micrometers or less wide and can get into the lungs from industrial activity such as construction, power plants, heavy machinery, and motor vehicles.
The EPA recently proposed to tighten the standards on the amount of fine particulate matter allowed under the Clean Air Act, which since its 1970 passage has reduced air pollution by more than 70% in the U.S. The proposed rule would make the standards 25% more restrictive than the 2012 limit.
“The administration estimates that it could prevent as many as 4,200 premature deaths annually, as well as 270,000 missed workdays per year, and result in up to $43 billion in net health and economic benefits by 2032,” the New York Times reported.
It is notable that those reductions in air pollution have coincided with huge gains in GDP over the same time frame. Environmental regulations did not harm business. Rather, largely because of improved health and the associated cost savings, every dollar invested in improving air quality yields about 15x return in benefits. That’s the importance of air quality. It pays to clean the air up.
While cleaner air is the long-term priority, on a day-to-day basis, the simple knowledge of the quality of the air we’re breathing can go a long way toward managing health conditions. On days with poor air quality, people can do their best to remain inside breathing ventilated air or wear protective masks when they’re outside. NOAA and the EPA issue daily air quality forecasts with data on ozone, particulate matter, and other pollutant levels.
“Our goal is to save and improve lives and reduce the number of air quality-related asthma attacks; eye, nose, and throat irritation; heart attacks and other respiratory and cardiovascular problems,” they write.
In India, Delhi officials set up an air quality “supersite” to identify causes of and solutions to bad air quality in a state plagued by pollution.
“Now we will be able to determine pollution sources on an hourly basis and forecast hourly air quality data for the next three days. With this, we will find how much of the pollution is caused by vehicles, industries, and biomass burning and make anti-pollution strategies accordingly,” Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal told the Hindustan Times.
“The key reason for pollution on Monday may differ from the reason on Tuesday. Until we calculate the impact made by a source of pollution in real-time, we cannot have an effective policy,” he said.
The importance of air quality is such that on action days when ozone levels are particularly bad, Air Now officials recommend conserving energy, carpooling or using public transportation, biking or walking when possible, waiting until dusk to gas up cars, and limiting use of household chemicals. For high particle pollution days, they recommend avoiding or limiting the use of fireplaces and wood stoves, gas-powered lawn and garden equipment, and not to burn trash or leaves.
As was hammered home by the wildfires in the West that brought smoke nationwide in the summer of 2020, the importance of air quality in the climate fight is high. Climate change affects air quality in subtler ways too, with longer warm seasons increasing the amount of pollen in the air and extreme weather and flooding increasing mold.
We are taking steps as a society to deal with the twin problems. The effectiveness of the Clean Air Act is a testament to how far we’ve come. But there is still work to be done. Increased energy efficiency in offices and homes will cut down on the amount of harmful emissions released into the atmosphere. So will less reliance on coal in favor of renewable sources. Driving is a major source of air pollution, and action steps range from more fuel-efficient cars to electric vehicles to taking public transportation, preferably powered by renewable sources. Even simple things like making sure tires are properly inflated increase fuel efficiency.
Life is better with clean air, and there are plenty of things we can do as individuals and as a society to help everyone breathe a little easier.