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Study highlights concerning impact of heat waves and wildfires on air quality: 'We're seeing the biggest uptick in the most hazardous days'

"We're wiping out two decades in air-quality gains."

"We're wiping out two decades in air-quality gains."

Photo Credit: iStock

Researchers believe that changes in climate are reversing 50 years of consistent improvements in air quality in the United States, with heat waves and worsening wildfires making it harder to breathe for many people across the country.

What's happening?

A new study from First Street Foundation found that the impact of rising global temperatures has undone some of the progress that the U.S. has made in addressing poor air quality since the middle of the 20th century.

Public campaigns and governmental interventions, most notably the 1963 Clean Air Act, created positive improvements until about 2016, Jeremy Porter, co-author of the study, told The Hill. 

Now, the study found that there has been an uptick in days in which the air quality is unhealthy. Wildfires, heat waves, and extreme ozone exposure are the leading causes, with rising levels of particulate matter (PM2.5).

The study discovered that 83 million people in the U.S. — over 25% of the population — are exposed to unhealthy air annually, measured by air quality index. Of those 83 million, 10 million experience very unhealthy levels of air quality, while 1.5 million are at risk of being exposed to hazardous air quality. The most affected areas in the U.S. are in the West and due to wildfires, and some experience poor air quality nearly three months out of the year.

The study suggests that by 2054 people experiencing unhealthy days will increase by 51%, and those experiencing hazardous days will increase by 27%.

Why is this important?

Hotter temperatures, which generally increase ozone pollution and exacerbate dry conditions that lead to dangerous wildfires, create more days of poor air quality.

"We're seeing the biggest uptick in the most hazardous [air] days," Porter told The Hill. "We're wiping out two decades in air-quality gains." 

This increase in air pollution, which affects many metropolitan areas, not only prevents children from reaping the health benefits of outdoor play and exercise but also is associated with certain health risks including cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, mental illness, and immune system disorders.

What is being done about poor air quality?

The Department of Justice is continuing to enforce regulations for companies that don't adhere to the Clean Air Act. 

The Environmental Protection Agency also has partnerships to reduce air pollution, while new legislation and investments in clean energy are doing the same. Pollution from dirty energy, such as coal, oil, and gas, accounts for the bulk of gases causing our planet to overheat.

On an individual level, it's crucial to be aware if you have chronic conditions that could put you at high risk, such as heart or lung disease, diabetes, or asthma.

Pay attention to local AQI readings and adjust your day accordingly. On days with a high AQI, limit your time outside, reduce outdoor exercise, wear a mask, or use indoor air purifiers.

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