As the terrible burdens and risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have changed everything in our daily lives, we know that our awareness of the importance of lung health is only growing.
There are visible, heartbreaking signs of the current lung health crisis highlighting daily that our most vulnerable family members, friends and neighbors are bearing the brunt of it.
While we continue our dedicated response to the pandemic, we also know that we can’t take our eye off another lung health crisis waiting for us to return to our normal schedules. Traffic and other sources of pollution have dropped during the pandemic with the widespread societal respect for public health guidelines and protecting our communities. Unfortunately, we know that the causes of unhealthy air in Phoenix are only on pause.
This week, the American Lung Association released our annual State of the Air report highlighting local levels of two of the most widespread outdoor air pollutants impacting lung health: ozone pollution, also known as smog, and particle pollution, also called soot.
Ozone pollution and particle pollution are two of the most widespread and dangerous air pollutants. Breathing these pollutants can cause asthma attacks, respiratory and cardiovascular harm, and even early death. Breathing particle pollution can also cause lung cancer, and Harvard researchers recently linked long-term elevated particle levels with greater death rates associated with COVID-19.
We found that nearly half of all Americans live in counties that had unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution in this year’s report that covered air quality data from 2016-2018.
Unfortunately for us, Phoenix ranks among the most polluted cities in the United States for both pollutants. In fact, Phoenix was one of just a handful of U.S. cities to land on all three top ten most polluted cities lists: most unhealthy ozone days (ranked 7th in the US), unhealthy particle pollution days (10th) and unhealthy annual levels of particle pollution (7th).
Like most of the western United States, Arizona saw increases in unhealthy ozone days with record heat – no surprise given 2016-2018 were three of the five hottest years on record. We also saw drought conditions that drove dust storms and weather conditions that drove pollution to record highs. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality noted that January 1, 2018 hit the highest levels of unhealthy air in recent history in Phoenix due to residents burning wood.
While pollution may be down today due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this crisis is not the way anyone wants to clean our air. We know this is not a lasting solution for the more than 130,000 children and over 550,000 adults with asthma in our state, or the 1.2 million Arizona seniors who face greater risks of unhealthy air.
We can certainly take lessons from making fewer car trips, exploring expanded options for working from home and rethinking commutes as important strategies for curbing harmful pollution.
We can also envision our roads with fewer tailpipes like we see today, but in the form of zero emission cars and phasing out fossil fuels in favor of increasing levels of renewable energy to power them.
We can take steps to improve our air and call on our leaders to act today to ensure Arizonan has the clean air they deserve. That’s why the American Lung Association in Arizona is calling on U.S. EPA to move forward with science- and health-based standards to limit ozone and particle pollution to safeguard health, especially for children, people of color, and people with lung disease.
We need to pursue zero emission transportation and concrete steps to take advantage of our renewable power resources. The Arizona Corporation Commission should work with utilities to set stronger renewable energy standards and our utilities must move forward with commitments to achieve 100 percent carbon free power through wind, solar and other non-combustion energy sources. Clear timelines and benchmarks to ending polluting power will ensure we start now.
2020 is going to be known for many major events in our history, but it also marks the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Air Act. This policy has driven so many of the lifesaving programs that have helped to clean our air, but we know we have more work to do and the roads won’t stay clear forever.
We need this direction now more than ever to protect lung health.
JoAnna Strother is the senior director of advocacy with the American Lung Association in Arizona