U.S. Air Pollution Is “Completely Outrageous”

How do you think the United States stacks up against other countries for protecting its citizens from the health threats of air pollution?

That’s the question Christiana Figueres, one of the world’s leading climate warriors, posed at last week’s Global Climate and Health Forum, an official side event of the Global Climate Action Summit. The answer, said Ms. Figueres, is “completely outrageous.”

The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, has the highest per capita spending on health care, and has an effective federal clean air law. But when it comes to avoiding sicknesses and deaths due to air pollution, we are ranked #23 in the world. In 2016, the American population lost 516 years of disease- and disability-free life per 100,000 people. That’s more than double the rate found in top-ranked New Zealand, and only marginally better than countries like Honduras (#26) and Nicaragua (#28).

Air Pollution is Dangerous

Most air pollution-related deaths and illnesses are caused by fine particle pollution, known more formally as “fine particulate matter” or PM2.5. Fine particles can lodge deep in the lungs and get into the bloodstream. This form of pollution has been linked to a wide array of health effects, including premature deaths, asthma attacks, heart attacks, lung cancer, preterm births, autism, and dementia.

Infographic outlining deaths linked to air pollution
Global deaths from outdoor and indoor air pollution World Health Organization

Here’s the latest available information (2014) on the sources of fine particle pollution in the United States:

  • About 77 percent is from power plants and other industrial processes;
  • About 10 percent is from the transportation sector; and
  • More than 16 percent is from wildfire smoke.

Thanks to federal and state pollution limits, levels of fine particles have declined across the United States since the 1990s, increasing life expectancy along the way. But that progress is in jeopardy thanks to the Trump administration’s attack on our lungs.

In just the last 6 weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management have proposed to weaken or roll back three key public health safeguards directly limiting particle pollution: the Clean Power Plan, clean car rules, and methane standards for the oil and gas industry. These safeguards also indirectly cut particle pollution by fighting climate change—which is fueling larger wildfires and more unhealthy wildfire smoke.

Wildfires are Getting Worse

As Michael St. John, Battalion Chief with the fire department in Mill Valley, California, put it at another Summit event:

“There’s no doubt it’s warmer and drier, and the fires are moving much more ferociously than in the past.”

Wildfire smoke increased fine particle pollution in the U.S. Northwest from 1988 to 2016, even as levels of that pollution declined in the rest of the country. Last month, fires in the Northwest produced so much particle pollution that air quality in Seattle, Washington was regularly worse than Beijing’s.

Future increases in area burned and number of wildfire days fueled by climate change are expected to likewise increase particle pollution in the West and the Southeast. And as concentrations of wildfire smoke increase, Americans will face more hospital admissions and premature deaths from respiratory ailments and other causes.

Wildfire smoke from the Carr Fire
Smoke from the Carr Fire in northern California, July 2018 Eric Coulter, Bureau of Land Management / Public Domain

September 18, 2018 Juanita Constible

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