Commentary American Lung Association advocates for clean air

By Deborah Brown

Celebrating 50 years of the landmark Clean Air Act, the American Lung Association reminds everyone of our nation’s great progress in reducing air pollution. Despite these successes, climate change poses new and unprecedented challenges to protecting the nation’s air quality. Additionally, as the COVID-19 pandemic makes the importance of lung health all too clear, standing up for clean air has never been more important.

Deborah Brown

Clean air is essential for healthy lungs and bodies, yet nearly half of Americans are breathing unhealthy air, according to the American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report. Climate change is worsening air pollution, placing our health at risk, including here in Delaware. This year’s report found the Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware/Maryland metro area, which includes Delaware’s New Castle and Kent counties, ranked as the 12th most polluted city in the nation for its year-round average levels of fine particle pollution and as the 23rd most polluted for days with high levels of ozone smog. Ozone and particle pollution are the nation’s most widespread air pollutants, and both can be deadly. In contrast, the report found that the area’s measure for daily spikes of fine particle pollution improved to its best level ever. However, even one bad air quality day can have detrimental impacts on lung health.

As the guardian of lung health, the American Lung Association is championing clean air for all, including Delaware’s 900,000 residents, through education, advocacy and research. Today, the association is the nation’s leading health organization shining a spotlight on the importance of clean air. We raise awareness of the connections between climate change, air pollution and human health, providing new opportunities for individuals across the nation to take action. We call on everyone to ensure clean air for all — for now and for future generations.

Everyone’s health is at risk from climate change and exposure to air pollution. Air pollution is often an invisible threat, and as a result, many people may not know that the air they breathe can pose serious risks to their health. In fact, close to half of all Americans live in an area with unhealthy air quality. Millions of people, including children and teens; older Americans; people with lung disease, cardiovascular disease or diabetes; and those with a lower socioeconomic status are more vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution. Air pollution can trigger asthma attacks, which impact 77,000 adults and 14,500 kids in Delaware. Air pollution can also trigger coughing and wheezing; cause heart attacks, stroke, developmental and reproductive harm and lung cancer; and can even be deadly. New research also links air pollution to the development of serious diseases, such as asthma and dementia. Climate change leads to drought, wildfires, flooding, worsened air pollution and changes in the spread of disease, so the effects of climate change are already harming lung health. We know that exposure to air pollution can make people more vulnerable to lung infections. When it comes to COVID-19, there is emerging evidence that even small increases in long-term exposure to particle pollution can increase the death rate of the virus by 8%.

Through the American Lung Association’s new Stand Up for Clean Air initiative, we’re asking everyone to pledge to act on climate change and clean air. Simple steps such as biking instead of driving, hang-drying clothes, turning off appliances, choosing electric vehicles and taking public transit and carpooling when it’s safe to do so can reduce our carbon footprint and the amount of fossil fuels we are burning and improve the air we breathe. Individuals also have an important role to play in pushing our leaders to safeguard our air quality and climate. Together, we can advocate for vital climate and clean-air policies that will reduce emissions and protect health. The time is now to take the pledge by simply visiting lung.org/air, and we’ll send you tips on steps you can take to make a difference, as well as opportunities to push our leaders to safeguard our air quality. Having clean healthy air is something we cannot take for granted, and now is not the time to roll back healthy air protections, but to strengthen them. We must act to protect our health today, tomorrow and for decades to come.

Deborah Brown is chief mission officer for the American Lung Association.