The Air We Breathe

Climate change worsens air pollution, but there are ways to protect yourself.

By Yael Grauer

May 2016


You can make a strong argument that the Earth is warming. In late 2012, the US National Intelligence Council published a report warning of climate change as an emerging security threat that could have impact on food, water and natural resources. What’s more, climate change adds to the problems caused by air pollution. Poor US air quality is responsible for as many as 60,000 premature deaths annually, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Association.

But not only can you help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, you can also take steps to protect yourself and your family from the negative effects of air pollution and climate change.

For starters, consider air quality. The Air Quality Index forecast for your area, available at airnow.gov, provides levels of five major air pollutants—ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide—for two days. The forecast is color-coded so you can see if the air quality is good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, very unhealthy or hazardous.

Particle pollution is linked to breathing problems and strokes, so you may want to shorten or reschedule outdoor activities and spend less time near roadways on high-pollution days. Those who need to be especially cautious include children, expectant mothers, older adults and people with lung or cardiovascular disease, obesity or diabetes.

If you must exercise outdoors the forecasts can still help, says Gabriele Pfister, PhD, at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “Ozone is typically the highest in the afternoon and early evening, so if a county issues a health advisory for ozone, if I go outside at 6 or 8 in the morning, it’s probably less of an impact than if I went out later in the day.”

Improvements in air quality forecasting are underway, says Luca Della Monache, PhD, another NCAR researcher, who is leading a project in this area. The new forecasts will offer prediction percentages for how likely it is that ozone and particulate matter forecasts will be accurate.

It’s important to make sure that the air inside is as clean as possible. Make your home a smoke-free zone and limit your use of wood stoves and fireplaces.

You can also install a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter and use a HEPA vacuum, says Jonathan Buonocore, ScD, of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard School of Public Health. HEPA filters can trap pollutants such as pollen, dust mites and mold spores, and are particularly helpful for people suffering from allergies or asthma.

These devices are far more effective than medical masks in the US, says Buonocore. “A lot of the particles that are an issue here are very fine particles, so when you see the medical mask that people in China wear, that doesn’t work for a lot of what’s going on here,” he explains.

Buonocore further recommends avoiding homes next to roadways, so keep that in mind if you’re in the market for a new place to live.

It’s a good idea to stock up on emergency supplies, if not for dealing with air pollution, then as a response to global climate change. Climate change increases the probability of multiple system failures, a phenomenon often referred to as “disasters within disasters.” Hurricanes and other weather events can increase the probability of complex emergencies as well as their magnitude or frequency. For example, hurricanes and even snowstorms can impact transportation, which has an effect on EMS calls. Threats can emerge as a result of systems failure, such as power outages. Be prepared by having extra food and water stored in your home and vehicle. Emergency blankets and other gear or equipment—backup generators, anyone?—are always a good idea.

In addition to stocking up on supplies, it’s important to stay on top of your health as much as possible because increased heat can aggravate cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Consult with your healthcare practitioner, get regular exercise and manage any health conditions. Your doctor may be able to prescribe emergency supplies for anything you need, or give you guidance on special measures you may need to take in the case of a weather emergency.

You can do your part for the environment. To reduce particle pollution, drive less: Put on your walking shoes, get out your bicycle or try carpooling or using public transportation. Avoid tobacco products, keep your engines tuned and use Energy Star products.

Timing at the gas pump can also make a difference. “When you fill up your car, you have a little bit of gas leaking and there are pollutants that create ozone,” said Pfister. “If you fill up very early in the morning or at night, these pollutants will have less of a strong impact.”

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