With the work-from-home trend’s emergence; lockdowns and closures of various typical gathering spaces like cinemas, restaurants, cafes, and shopping centers; most of us are driving less than we did before the pandemic. Air pollution levels declined during the pandemic, but the decrease may have been overstated.
Air pollution remains a public health hazard, and as the pandemic winds down, people will resume their normal driving activities, resulting in more typical air pollution levels. Using fossil fuels also obviously contributes greatly to climate change.
Recently, the American Lung Association published its annual State of the Air report. Will Barrett, the American Lung Associations’s Director of Clean Air Advocacy, answered some questions about the report’s findings for CleanTechnica.
For 135 million Americans who live in areas with unhealthy air pollution, what can they do to reduce their exposure?
This is a really important question. We encourage everyone to track their local air pollution levels and adjust their time outdoors or other activities accordingly. Local air pollution information is available through local media sources like newspaper weather reports or online at airnow.gov.
What are some of the consequences of being exposed to unhealthy air pollution on a regular basis?
Long term exposures to ozone or particle pollution can bring a wide range of health challenges. It is also important to know that even short exposures — like on a day with very high levels of particle pollution during a wildfire or other more extreme event — can also threaten your health.
For those who have chronic health conditions and are exposed to unhealthy air pollution, would it be in their interest to take some reduction measures like staying indoors at certain times of day, or trying to avoid certain areas like industrial corridors or major freeways during peak traffic?
Yes, we encourage everyone, including those with health conditions that increase their vulnerability, to take precautions when air quality reaches unhealthy levels. That can come in the form of avoiding exercise outdoors when the air is bad, limiting time kids play outdoors and other measures to stay protected. In addition, there are certainly areas with higher levels of local pollution that might not register on local air quality monitors, so we also recommend avoiding exercise near major freeways or other high traffic areas.
During the pandemic, the work-from-home trend has increased and there has been a significant decrease in driving. As a result, air pollution levels have declined in some areas. When normal driving activities resume, would it be beneficial to any drivers to continue wearing masks to reduce their exposure to unhealthy air pollution, or do cloth masks not protect against it much?
While highly recommended to stop the transmission of COVID-19 in parallel with hand washing, physical distancing, cloth masks are not rated for pollution control. N-95 masks will filter out fine particles when used properly. Most vehicles on the road today are equipped with a cabin air filter that is intended to protect the occupants from harmful pollutants. The cabin air filter is part of the ventilation system, and like the air filters in a home HVAC system, needs to be replaced periodically as specified in the owners manual.
Are you expecting that as more and more people purchase and drive electric vehicles that air pollution in urban settings will gradually decrease?
Yes, given that the transportation sector is a major source of harmful air pollution, local air quality would be expected to improve through the widespread distribution of zero-emission vehicles. This is also very important in the medium- and heavy-duty vehicle sector when considering transit and school buses, delivery vehicles and heavy trucks all operate in close proximity to residential areas and contribute heavily to ozone pollution, fine particles and toxic diesel exhaust. It is also important to note that pollution generated in urban settings also contributes beyond the city limits and contributes to higher ozone pollution in communities downwind.
American Lung Association research found that major clean air and public health benefits could follow such a widespread deployment of zero emission cars, trucks and buses — to the tune of $72 billion in annual public health benefits.
Does exposure to unhealthy air pollution cause COPD, or is it one contributor to this disease?
People with heart and lung disease are at greater risk due to unhealthy air quality. Living with ozone pollution long-term may cause lasting damage to your respiratory health, including development of new cases of asthma in kids, damage to our airways that can lead to COPD and it can increase allergy problems. Even short-term exposures can have a wide range of poor health outcomes, including worsening symptoms, increase the need for medication or ER visits for people with asthma or COPD. There is some evidence that the permanent damage to the airways caused by long-term exposure to ozone may lead to the development of COPD.
Is exposure to unhealthy air pollution more damaging to the health of certain segments of the general population?
Our State of the Air report found that people of color are 61 percent more likely to live in a county with a failing grade for air quality, and are over three times more likely to live in a county with a failing grade for unhealthy ozone days, particle pollution days and annual unhealthy levels of particle pollution. Lower-income communities, children, seniors and those living with existing heart and lung diseases — like asthma, COPD or lung cancer — are also at greater risk.
For those with chronic health conditions, how much might it benefit their health to move away from urban centers with unhealthy pollution levels?
Our report highlights the cleanest cities in the country, but no one should have to move away from their home or family due to pollution — cleaning our air is the best way to ensure all people can have good health. It is important to remember that just as people travel through their community, so does pollution. So, there can be locations within an urban area that generates pollution that eventually drifts downwind to communities far from the city limits.