Much of the northeastern United States was devastated last summer by dense smoke from the Canadian wildfires, which caused New York City to burn.Since the 1960s, these episodes, once mostly isolated incidents, are becoming more common due to the impact of climate change, new research shows.
About 83 million Americans, or 1 in 4, are already exposed each year to air quality classified as “unhealthy” by the Air quality index (AQI), a figure that could rise to 125 million people within decades, according to the First Street Foundation, which analyzes climate risks. The harmful level of ICA, color-coded red, means that outdoor activities can cause lung deterioration in some people, including respiratory ailments such as chest pain and cough.
The worsening air quality in the country comes after decades of improvements thanks to regulations such as the one from 1970. Clean Air Act, which tightened federal standards on pollutants emitted by factories and automobiles. But the recent rise in poor air quality could be harder to combat because it is linked to global warming, with higher temperatures and droughts causing more smoke-spewing wildfires, First Street said.
“Additional heart attacks”
At the same time, rising poor air quality threatens to reverse the health benefits that arose from stricter pollution regulations starting in the 1960s and harm the U.S. economy, said Jeremy Porter, head of research. of climate implications on First Street.
“Basically, we're adding additional premature deaths, again adding additional heart attacks,” Porter told CBS MoneyWatch. “We are losing productivity in economic markets by also losing days of work outdoors.”
There is already some evidence that people are leaving parts of the country with lower air quality, contributing to what is effectively a redrawing of the nation's map due to wildfires, floods and other effects of climate change.
“We've seen very early statistical signs in our own analysis that people are moving away from smoke coming from wildfires,” Porter said. “The downstream effect of people moving is that property values start to suffer because the area becomes less desirable. And then as the area becomes less desirable, tax revenues are directly affected because the property values are declining.”
Residents of California, Oregon and Washington state are experiencing the largest declines in air quality, in part due to wildfires in those regions. In California, air quality today is often at “purple” and “maroon” levels, considered from very healthy to hazardous, something that was unheard of about 15 years ago, First Street's analysis found. At the same time, the number of “green” days, considered healthy, has decreased by a third since 2010.
However, the impact is not just being felt on the West Coast, First Street found.
“It has become something that is impacting the daily lives of people east of the Mississippi River,” Porter said. In 2022,They were “so bad that people were asked to evacuate their neighborhoods, which is unheard of.”
The number of unhealthy AQI days is likely to increase in the coming decades due to climate change, First Street projected. The worst affected might be the Western states, but the Eastern states are not immune. Some areas of the Southwest, especially in the borer-affected areas of Florida and Georgia, are already experiencing an increase in the number of days with unhealthy AQI numbers.
Particles and ozone
Poor air quality is linked to increased particulate matter and ozone, which are increasing due to changes in the environment, including extreme heat, drought and wildfires. Particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, also called PM2.5, are of particular concern because these tiny specks of pollution can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause a variety of health problems.
PM2.5 particles are increasing due to wildfires, while research by 2022 according to the Environmental Protection Agency.that ground-level ozone is also being exacerbated by increasingly devastating fires. Ozone levels can inflame the airways and increase the risk of an asthma attack, among other health problems.
Although it is difficult to reverse the amount of air pollution linked to climate change, at least knowing the risks and how to mitigate them can help, Porter said. First Street has a site called RiskFactor.com where you can enter your address and see your flood, fire, wind and heat risks.
People may also need to take steps to protect their own health from more days of poor air quality, he added.
“Being able to keep smoke out of the house is really important,” Porter said. “Things like making sure your windows are sealed and something as simple as changing your HVAC filter can have a big impact on the cleanliness of the air inside your home.”
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