If residents of the nation’s capital aren’t already sneezing, hacking, and swiping at red and rheumy eyes, just wait — the spring allergy season is upon us. And it may be longer and worse than ever. Then, Washingtonians also may be gasping soon for another reason: worsening air pollution, specifically problematic ozone levels in summer heat.
Though science deniers may be resisting environmental realities, human-caused climate change already is affecting our health and well-being.
Air pollution, for example, is a rising worry, the American Lung Association reported in its 20th annual report on clean air. The health group advised that:
[T]oo many cities across the nation increased the number of days when particle pollution, often called ‘soot,’ soared to often record-breaking levels. More cities suffered from higher numbers of days when ground-level ozone, also known as ‘smog,’ reached unhealthy levels. Many cities saw their year-round levels of particle pollution increase as well. The ‘State of the Air’ 2019 report adds to the evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health. The three years covered in this report ranked as the hottest years on record globally. High ozone days and spikes in particle pollution zoomed, putting millions more people at risk and adding challenges to the work cities are doing across the nation to clean up.
[T]he Washington-Baltimore region as the 16th most ozone-polluted city in the U.S. Both Arlington and Fairfax, Virginia, received an “F” for the number of high ozone days that occurred between 2015 and 2017; Loudoun County and Prince William County both got ‘Cs.’ In Maryland, Prince George’s County, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County failed the ozone test; Montgomery County and Carroll County received ‘Ds.’ The District, which had 14 high-ozone days in the three-year span, also received an ‘F.’
The strong economy has meant that tens of millions of Americans head off to work every day, and they’re doing so in more cars, trucks, and motorcycles than ever. Though regulators have imposed tougher standards to make vehicles cleaner and more efficient, their sheer numbers are overwhelming the environmental progress eked out over time, advocates say.
A steady rise in temperatures worsens smog and allergy problems, experts say. As the lung association noted:
Warmer temperatures stimulate the reactions in the atmosphere that cause ozone to form, and 2017 saw the second warmest temperatures on record in the United States. All three years covered in this report rank as the three warmest years ever recorded.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology surveyed its members and found that patients are seeking increased treatment, telling specialists that their season of suffering is lasting longer and is worsening. That also can be attributed to warming temperatures that also increase CO2 in the atmosphere, giving plants and trees longer time to flourish — and to release human-irritating pollen. Experts estimate that between 1970 and 2018 the growing season in the area around the District of Columbia has increased by 18 days due to climate change.
In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and I’ve seen the wisdom of their staying healthy as possible — and out of the grips of the health system where they might be harmed. That’s not easy to do when the air we breathe and the water we drink pose risks to our health and when the politicians, regulators, and overseers of the environment not only don’t do their jobs but fall prey to counter factual thinking or becoming advocates for profit-hungry corporate interests.
As sneezing and wheezing Washingtonians know, respiratory inconvenience can fast turn to major distress and serious health issues. The lung association reported this concerning information about air pollution and those with heightened health risks with it:
- Older and Younger—Nearly 20 million adults age 65 and over and more than 32.5 million children under 18 years old live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 2.6 million seniors and nearly 4.9 million children live in counties failing all three tests
- People with Asthma—More than 2.5 million children and more than 9.7 million adults with asthma live in counties of the United States that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 306,000 children and more than 1.2 million adults with asthma live in counties failing all three tests.
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)—More than 6.2 million people with COPD live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 686,000 people with COPD live in counties failing all three tests.
- Lung Cancer—More than 75,200 people with lung cancer live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 8,600 people with lung cancer live in counties failing all three tests.
- Cardiovascular Disease—More than 8.2 million people with cardiovascular diseases live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant; nearly 968,000 people live in counties failing all three tests.
- Diabetes—More than 3.7 million people with diabetes live in counties that received an F for either short-term or year-round particle pollution; more than 1.5 million live in counties failing both tests. Having diabetes increases the risk of harm from particle pollution.
- Poverty—More than 17.9 million people with incomes meeting the federal poverty definition live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. More than 3 million people in poverty live in counties failing all three tests. Evidence shows that people who have low incomes may face higher risk from air pollution
Climate change may seem like a daunting issue because it can be so large and complex. But we owe it to ourselves and the generations that follow to do serious homework of our own about this urgent global concern, especially as we barrel to the 2020 presidential election. We need to remember the Trump Administration’s record, appointing former industry lobbyists to wreck agencies tasked with safeguarding the environment. We also can break down green concerns address them in smaller, beneficial ways. The Brookings Institution, for example, has posted results of its study showing that school kids’ health and academic performance improves when districts spend a relatively small sum to retrofit and clean up their highly polluting diesel buses. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and much is at stake.