Representative Maxine Dexter, an Oregon State Representative and a physician who practices Pulmonary and Critical Care medicine, co-authors this blog about the impacts of poor air quality on our health and climate.
A human’s need to breathe is fundamental to life. Not being able to breathe easily invokes panic and anxiety and is a feeling luckily most of us don’t struggle with on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, recent years have led to many more of us experiencing the discomfort of struggling to breathe when the air quality is poor. The deep orange skies and clouds of acrid smoke surrounding areas in our state led to significant discomfort as well as very real negative health impacts in recent years, especially in 2020 when we suffered one of the worst wildfire seasons in history. Over a million acres burned in Oregon, destroying homes, workplaces and lives. Many Oregonians are still working to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. The air quality index was so bad across the state there wasn’t a scale that could effectively report it. Wildfire smoke and its negative health impacts didn’t stop with the destruction of flames, it literally was carried away in the air and caused illness and anxiety across the continent in both 2020 and 2021.
The health impacts of poor air quality are enormously high. Small particulate matter that floats in the air as a result of burning organic matter, including fossil fuels, causes eye, nose and throat irritation, and when it then moves from the lungs into the circulatory system it causes even more severe health problems including chronic heart and respiratory diseases, stroke, lung infections, lung cancer, diabetes, and more. Globally in 2019, 9.14 million global deaths were attributed to ischemic heart diseases, 20% of which (1.8M) were linked to air pollution.
This is just the start of the illness and death we are seeing increase due to air pollution as millions more die of other disease processes. We also know that people who are exposed to chronic air pollution and COVID-19 are more likely to get sick and die. The impacts of air pollution are unacceptably high and must be addressed urgently and definitively.
Since the Clean Air Act took effect more than a half-century ago, the United States has made dramatic strides in removing pollutants from the air we breathe. But, even with those safeguards, relying on fossil fuels for transportation and energy production means that bad air days continue to persist. Beyond that, fossil fuel combustion is also the primary driver of the climate crisis. This creates a vicious cycle in which global warming contributes to more intense and frequent wildfires and those warming temperatures further worsens ground-level ozone, which exacerbates our air pollution problems even more.
We must take action urgently and as policy makers and advocates we know that the public has an enormous role to play in making sure laws and regulations are updated. If voters demand change, it will happen. The issue seems to be that each of us will have to live differently to become less dependent on fossil fuels. It will take sacrifice and ingenuity and we must come together to make this happen.
We can prevent the release of pollution from our tailpipes, our homes and our industries. Electrifying our buildings, equipment and transportation, while transitioning to clean renewable energy, can cut pollution and save lives. Cutting air pollution now by accelerating the growth of electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines can also help us and future generations enjoy healthier lives.
When a family member’s health is threatened, we do what it takes to save them. Each and every one of us should be able to breathe clean air. We must act swiftly to zero out pollution from all aspects of our lives. When we do, we’ll all breathe easier.
State Director, Environment Oregon
As director of Environment Oregon, Celeste develops and runs campaigns to win real results for Oregon's environment. She has worked on issues ranging from preventing plastic pollution, stopping global warming, defending clean water, and protecting our beautiful places. Celeste's organizing has helped to reduce kids' exposure to lead in drinking water at childcare facilities in Oregon, encourage transportation electrification, ban single-use plastic grocery bags, defend our bedrock environmental laws and more. She is also the author of the children's book, Myrtle the Turtle, empowering kids to prevent plastic pollution. Celeste lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and two daughters, where they frequently enjoy the bounty of Oregon's natural beauty.