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Clean Air Remains a Critical Need for Americans’ Health

Photo: Courtesy of Annie Spratt

Between days of smog and plumes of wildfire smoke traveling thousands of miles, air pollution is not an abstract concept for Californians; it is a dangerous reality. As a pediatrician in Southern California, I frequently treat health issues caused and worsened by air pollution in my young patients.  

Many of my patients suffer as a result of breathing unhealthy air. Some with asthma face more frequent and severe asthma attacks triggered by air pollution while other children risk having their lungs affected for life from growing up close to busy freeways.

Higher risks

While breathing air pollution is unhealthy for everyone, some populations are at greater risk, including children, older adults, individuals with existing health issues and low-income communities. For these populations, it is especially important to limit exposure whenever possible and, for us as nation, to continue to clean up the air they breathe.

Children face increased risk from air pollution because of their high activity level and growing lungs, leading to more air pollution inhaled. Studies have found that growing up breathing high levels of air pollution may affect how children’s lungs function and interfere with lung development, putting them at greater risk of chronic lung disease and reduced lung capacity over their lifetimes.

The one in 11 children in the United States living with asthma are especially at risk because air pollution can trigger asthma attacks. In California alone, there are 652,000 children with asthma, all of whom are especially vulnerable when breathing polluted air.

Pollution sources

Let’s talk about where this pollution is coming from. The emissions come from many sources, including tailpipe exhaust from cars and trucks, power plants, refineries, smoke from wildfires and more. Two of the most widespread dangerous pollutants that can form from these emissions are ozone and particle pollution.

Ozone and particle pollution can have serious health effects — including asthma attacks, heart attacks, stroke, respiratory and cardiovascular harm and even early death. Exposure to particle pollution can also cause lung cancer.

Unfortunately, climate change makes both of these pollutants harder to tackle. Hotter temperatures make ozone pollution more likely to form and harder to clean up. Changing climate conditions are making wildfires more frequent and intense in the Western United States, leading to increases in particle pollution. 

Making changes

While these changes are alarming, there is good news. Thanks to the federal Clean Air Act and California’s clean car program, we’ve made real progress in cleaning up the air we breathe. Still, we need to do much more so everyone can breathe healthy air.  

So how do you protect yourself and your family from air pollution? Track air quality information in your area at airnow.gov, and limit your activities outdoors when the air is unhealthy. Support steps in your community to reduce pollution, such as getting cleaner school buses. 

Finally, call on your elected officials to support the Clean Air Act. We need to protect the tools in the Clean Air Act that help us get cleaner air and fight climate change so every American can breathe healthy air. 

Afif El Hasan, M.D., American Lung Association, [email protected]

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