An email in my inbox today proclaimed, “it’s September and we’re heading into pollution season in many regions.” I was taken aback. Does pollution have a season? Of course, there is seasonal variability to certain pollutants, but, unfortunately, pollution lives with us in and outside our homes in every season.
There is the invisible pollution: the sneaky emissions off-gassing from our furniture materials, released from our air fresheners and emitted from our gas appliances. There is noticeable pollution: a bus or a car idling with a discernible smell. And then there is the hazardous air pollution we are experiencing now from the wildfires wreaking havoc the West. The orange sky, ash on our cars and baby strollers, and the air thick with smoke. Cities like Portland (Oregon), San Francisco, and Seattle are choking on some of the worst air in the world.
As climate change accelerates, wildfires are rapidly becoming more intense, destructive, and dangerous. In 2016, researchers estimated that under future climate change more than 82 million people will experience a 57 percent increase in the frequency and 31 percent increase in the intensity of consecutive days with high air pollution from wildfires. It feels like those days are upon us.
Exposure to outdoor air pollution from human-caused sources is now the greatest environmental risk factor for early death in the United States, responsible for 100,000–200,000 early deaths per year. That’s more than car crashes and murders combined. I’ve certainly feared both those types of deaths, but dying from exposure to air pollution? Not something many of us fear.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is that much of the pollution we generate is preventable. Of those 100,000–200,000 early deaths, around half are caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
We are all hoping for relief from the fires ravaging the West, and we are saddened for those who have lost their lives or family members, their homes and businesses, and for the loss of trees, wildlife, and habitat. But when wildfire season winds down, our awareness of air pollution must not wane. Elevating awareness of air pollution is the crucial first step in fighting it.
Unfortunately, timely, reliable information on the air we breathe is not always easy to find. And once we do find the air quality data, we are often left without knowing how to improve the air.
Here are four broad steps that policymakers and individuals can take now to elevate air quality action — from the most global to the most local.
- Country, state, and city policies must include air pollution mitigation strategies
- Install air quality sensors in every neighborhood
- Prioritize air quality at schools, particularly those in wildfire risk zones
- Have a plan for your “safe room” when it’s not safe to go outdoors