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Here’s how climate change impacts air quality and what it means for you

Longer warm seasons lead to longer allergy seasons—and much worse

A white man coughs into his fist as smoke rises around him Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / kodda / sanjagrujic

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When the topic of air quality comes up, an iconic image pops into my head, a vision of Los Angeles, California seen from afar through a lens of smog and haze.

LA is a city so synonymous with traffic and air pollution, that you can almost see each dusty particulate floating above the city. And, while air pollution is certainly more prevalent in cities like LA, where auto emissions are higher, Los Angeles is hardly the only place that has to concern itself with air pollution.

In fact, thanks to climate change, air quality is deteriorating for people in every part of the country, and it’s creating a quietly devastating health crisis for millions.

Here are the immediate impacts on us

Difficulty breathing and complications from asthma, lung and cardiovascular diseases, and even infant mortality rates are all increasing due to worsening air pollution, not to mention that climate change is also lengthening our pollen seasons (and increasing the amount of pollen produced), which is causing millions of allergy sufferers adverse reactions for longer periods of time each year.

While pollen is certainly different from air pollution, both are increased and exacerbated by the rise of temperatures across the world, and studies have shown that a rise in air pollution actually contributes to more severe allergies.

Luckily, there are things you can do to make yourself aware of the risks and breathe a little easier.

What is air pollution and how is it measured?

Air pollution has five main components

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established five main components of air pollution: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter, which includes inhalable particles that are found in smoke, haze, dust, or chemicals), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

How these main components affect your ‘health and welfare’

The Air Quality Index (AQI), which is typically reported daily and varies by city or region, is the EPA’s way of measuring and communicating the level of air quality across the country, and it runs on a scale of zero to 500.

Generally speaking, AQI levels that are at or below 100 are considered safe and satisfactory for most people. Anything between 101 and 500 is considered unhealthy.

“Air pollution is something that is harming health or welfare,” explains Anthony Wexler, the director of the Air Quality Research Center at University of California, Davis.

“Health, of course, is usually defined as human health, but we care about animal health as well. Welfare is everything else,” he says. “It’s stripping the paint off your house because the air is acidic, or ruining the tires on your car because ozone is eating the chemical bonds there. All those things that end up affecting you, or society, negatively in some other way. There are many, many things out there that are classified as air pollution, because even if they may not directly affect health, they are costing somebody something.”

Air pollution’s harm potential

While we all generally know that being overexposed to carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide can be harmful or even fatal, you may not know exactly what harm can come from exposure to ground-level ozone or particulate pollution (or, let’s be real, maybe you don’t even know what those terms truly mean).

Let’s break it down: You’ve heard of the ozone layer, the thing we ruined because we loved styrofoam cups and Aqua Net too much, right? Ozone itself is a gas, and when it’s up in the stratosphere, it helps to filter the sun’s UV rays.

Ground-level ozone is that same gas, but when its components, which include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides, react to sunlight at ground level, they create a health hazard for our lungs, causing difficulty breathing, lung damage, and even risk of early death from heart or lung disease.

The hotter it is, the more prevalent ground-level ozone is. Particulate matter, which is found in haze, smoke, and dust, when inhaled, can also cause serious health issues, as small particulates can permeate into the lungs and even the bloodstream.

How is climate change affecting our air quality?

Climate change is causing our air quality to deteriorate. While we often think of the worst effects of climate change to be extreme weather or rising sea levels, our air quality is perhaps the most immediate and personal concern, as it affects all of us, every single day.

Unfortunately, It’s not just a looming potential threat. The effects of climate change on the air we breathe are already upon us.

Increasing health challenges like asthma, COPD, and pregnancy complications

As Nicholas Kenyon, a professor at and the co-director of the University of California, Davis, Asthma Network, explains, “Most of the impacts of climate change have been on respiratory diseases such as asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).”

Kenyon’s research also involves studying the long-term effects of climate events such as wildfires, which we know to be brought on by climate change, on asthma sufferers and children.

While this long-term research is not yet conclusive, he states that “we do think that these sustained climate events lead to long-term complications such as lung disease, heart disease, and others.”

Dangerous ground-level ozone tends to peak on summer afternoons and is exacerbated by extreme heat. Our reliance on automobiles and the constant emission of greenhouse gasses only worsens these conditions and contributes to this harmful cycle, which traps harmful contaminants, including ozone and pollutants. Then, they hit our skin and we breathe them in.

Prolonged and repeated exposure to these pollutants contributes to everything from breathing difficulty to pregnancy complications (including a higher likelihood of miscarrying, low birth weight, and congenital defects) to heart attacks.

As temperatures rise, so do allergies

In the same way, climate change contributes to warmer temperatures across the globe, resulting in a spring pollen season that begins anywhere from 10 to 40 days earlier than normal.

Scientists who have studied pollen emissions have determined that the amount of pollen produced by flowering plants and trees is increasing by up to 40% more than recorded levels. This creates a devastating situation for millions of allergy sufferers who experience everything from allergy attacks to diminished productivity in school or work.

We’ve been outlining all of the doom and gloom associated with air pollution and increased pollen seasons, but there are steps you can take to make the air around you a little more breathable.

The easiest thing you can do on a daily basis is check in with the EPA’s Air Quality Index to understand the patterns in the air quality in your area.

Similarly, you can check on your daily local pollen index with resources like BreezoMeter’s interactive pollen map.

By understanding how the air is measured and what the typical AQI is in your area, you may be able to monitor your surroundings for your own good.

During extreme heat, many cities will enact Ozone Action Days in an effort to prevent citizens from harmful or excessive ozone exposure. During these days, it’s recommended that people try to conserve electricity, gas (by taking public transportation, ride-sharing, or finding alternate means of transportation), minimizing the use of household chemicals, including VOCs found in paints and similar products, and staying indoors to avoid exposure to ozone.

While these tips are essential on days where high ozone levels pose a threat, they’re also good common sense rules to follow on a regular basis as well.

If you’ve ever wondered why it’s often suggested that during extreme heat people don’t exercise outdoors—or if they do, to exercise early in the day—air pollution is one of the main reasons.

A study conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has shown that as physical activity increases, we breathe more frequently, more deeply, and often through our mouths, and each of those things increase the amount of pollutants entering our systems.

So exercise enthusiasts, heed the advice of the meteorologist who suggests you take to the treadmill instead of the streets on especially hot days. Your lungs will thank you.

Can air purifiers or air monitors help?

On an at-home level, air pollution monitors in the home are another way to make you confident about the air you’re breathing. Amazon's Smart Indoor Air Quality Monitor, which we've home tested, and AirThings, which we are currently testing, offer several indoor air pollution alerts that tell you the levels of everything from particulates to radon to carbon monoxide in your home.

To actually address any issues in your home, air purifiers can be trusted to purify the air in large sections of your home and reduce the amount of pollen and other particulates, as well as mold, dust, and VOCs, that you and your family breathe.

Depending on what you’re looking to clear the air of, you have choices. A great general air purifier to handle both particulate matter and chemicals is the Winix 5500-2. To mitigate pollen and other particulates that cause seasonal allergies, try the Medify MA-50. If you want to avoid VOCs, the Aura Air is a good option.

While it may sound dire to hear that our air quality is steadily worsening, never doubt that by taking a few small steps each day to reverse the causes of it yourself, you can make an impact to keep the air as clean as possible

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