EDF Health

Breathing wildfire smoke: A scientist mom’s concerns

This post originally appeared on EDF Voices

Maria Harris is an Environmental Epidemiologist.

Downtown Oakland, CA skyline obscured by wildfire smoke. Aug. 22, 2020 Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo, Getty Images.

If the risks, hardships and anxiety of life during a pandemic were not enough, my fellow northern Californians are now facing another health crisis.

As I write this, hundreds of wildfires are burning across the state, among them two of the largest ever in California. Together, the fires have burned more than 1.4 million acres, destroyed 2,800 homes and buildings, killed eight people and forced thousands to evacuate their homes.

On top of the acute risks to lives and homes, residents across the state are suffering from highly polluted air as massive plumes of smoke fill the skies above our homes.

Children, seniors and those with lung disease are especially vulnerable

As a mom of two young kids, it’s been a tough couple weeks of anxiously monitoring air quality data and maps to determine if and when it might be safe to go outside, while seeking information on how to keep my family healthy.

As an environmental health scientist, I know that wildfire smoke has been linked to a range of negative health impacts, including asthma exacerbation, which can lead to emergency room visits and hospitalizations, along with increased rates of heart attacks and even death. Children and pregnant women, as well as those with heart disease or respiratory conditions like asthma, are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of wildfire smoke.

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Pandemic exposes need for cities to improve air pollution data collection to protect public health

Harold Rickenbacker, Ph.D., Manager, EDF+Business.

This is the fourth in a series of Global Clean Air blogs on COVID-19 and air pollution. EDF scientists and program experts share data about pollution levels during quarantine from a local and global perspective, and provide recommendations for governments and companies to Rebuild Better.

Los Angeles, California. 

We’ve long known that air pollution is linked to health problems like heart disease and asthma, and that these risks are highest for the elderly and people with existing heart and lung diseases. Now, new evidence shows the same people who have lived with polluted air for decades are also at increased risk for severe illness from Coronavirus.

These findings are generating unprecedented urgency to clean the air we breathe and underscoring the importance for cities across the globe to make air pollution monitoring a priority in a post-pandemic world.

But as local leaders grapple with how to tackle air pollution and protect vulnerable communities, they’re faced with a big challenge: they lack the localized data needed to properly protect public health and reduce harmful emissions.

New, lower-cost sensor technology is allowing scientists, advocates and government officials to map air pollution at the hyperlocal level, which can reveal pollution patterns within neighborhoods and even individual city blocks.

Policymakers tasked with rebuilding healthier and more resilient communities in a post-pandemic world can use localized data to work more effectively with residents and stakeholders to implement powerful interventions that reduce air pollution in overburdened communities.

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Companies Need To Invest In Clean Delivery Amid Pandemic Online Shopping to Reduce Air Pollution

Aileen Nowlan, Senior Manager, EDF+Business.

This is the third in a series of Global Clean Air blogs on COVID-19 and air pollution. EDF scientists and program experts will share data about pollution levels during quarantine from a local and global perspective, and provide recommendations for governments and companies to Rebuild Better.

COVID-19 means a lot more online shopping, which means a lot more delivery trucks that could contribute to a lot more air pollution in our neighborhoods.

As coronavirus shut down the economy, some regions saw a drop in air pollution. But as economic activity picks up, so does pollution – and if the habit of doing more shopping online persists, we could end up with worse air quality from fleets of diesel-powered delivery trucks.

At-home delivery is contributing to growing demand for freight movement, which is driving increased consumption of fossil fuels, especially diesel, and worsening air pollution. In fact, Amazon’s carbon emissions climbed 15% in the last year alone—even before coronavirus—due to increased sales.

During this pandemic, at-home shoppers are deluged with purchases arriving by cardboard box, each delivered by polluting trucks. Our new video encourages consumers to let companies know they’d like them to make the last mile of delivery to come from a zero-emissions vehicle, cleaner shipping options and local delivery lockers. Getting a finished product from the factory to your door, has costs beyond the price tag. More trucks are making more trips, hurting the planet, and our health.

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Why now is the moment for cities around the world to act decisively on air pollution

Sarah Vogel, Ph.D.is Vice President for Health.

This is the second in a series of Global Clean Air blogs on COVID-19 and air pollution. EDF scientists and program experts will share data about pollution levels during quarantine from a local and global perspective, and provide recommendations for governments and companies to Rebuild Better.

New COVID-19 air quality/ transportation measures in Bogotá, Colombia.

Around the world, we’ve seen dramatic improvement in air quality as a result of the response to COVID-19. While it’s come from an artificial and unwanted brake on the global economy, it’s drawn renewed attention to the devastating impacts of outdoor air pollution.

As many large cities around the world emerge from lockdown, city authorities need to act decisively to prevent air pollution rebounding and even exceeding pre-COVID-19 levels. That was the conclusion of participants in a “Clear Skies to Clean Air” webinar I moderated last week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense Fund, in collaboration with the World Bank.

The improvements in air quality seen during the COVID-19 lockdown have shown individuals and policymakers what is possible and could open the door to reinvigorated efforts to address pollution.

London and Bogotá demonstrate clean recovery strategies

The webinar heard from policymakers on the front lines of addressing air pollution: Shirley Rodrigues, Deputy Mayor of London, with responsibility for environment and energy; and Claudia López, Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia.

New COVID-19 air quality/ transportation measures in London.

Cities need devolved powers if they are to address local air pollution, argued Rodrigues: “We can’t have a centralised approach … Citizens deal with their local authorities, mayors know what is needed in their cities. Devolving powers, alongside funding, is absolutely critical so we can push the electrification agenda and the reclamation of roads, so we can avoid a car-based recovery.”

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Hurricanes Coming: Protecting Black and Brown Neighborhoods from a “Triple Whammy”

Elena Craft, Ph.D., is Senior Director of Climate and Health

This is the first in a series of Global Clean Air blogs on COVID-19 and air pollution. EDF scientists will share data about pollution levels during quarantine from a local and global perspective, and provide recommendations for governments and companies to Rebuild Better.

A black man who lived most of his 88 years in Pleasantville was one of the first Houstonians to die from COVID-19.

James C. Campbell, Source: ABC13.com Houston

His name was James C. Campbell. He raised a family in one of the first neighborhoods in the city planned for black Houstonians, Pleasantville, which has been surrounded in the years since it was founded by congested interstates, salvage yards, metal recyclers, and a sprawling brewery where heavy trucks come and go day and night. Pleasantville residents still share stories about where they were when chemicals in warehouses exploded in the 1990s and forced them to flee their neighborhood for safety.

Just days after Campbell’s funeral in early April, as the coronavirus started to spread across Texas, UT Health researchers mapped neighborhoods across Houston like Pleasantville where residents suffering from underlying health conditions and from years of exposure to air pollution were at increased risk from the worst impacts of a COVID infection. The intention was clear: Data could help local government leaders decide how, and where, to marshal resources to protect the health of those who needed it most.

Disasters do not impact neighborhoods equally, data like that show. It’s clear during the coronavirus pandemic, just as it was clear during past disasters like Hurricane Harvey. In 2017, for example, in the first, and worst days of the storm, 93 percent of all known toxic emissions in all of Harris County were released within a four-mile radius of the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood Manchester — an area that includes Pleasantville — even though it makes up less than 5 percent of the county geographically.

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Amid COVID-19, the Trump administration sets dangerous air pollution standards. What is at stake for Houstonians?

Ananya Roy, Senior Health Scientist; Rachel Fullmer, Senior Attorney; Jeremy Proville, Director; Grace Tee Lewis, Health Scientist

The Trump administration’s disregard for science has been clear in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s not the only health threat they’re making worse by ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence. For three years the administration has systematically sought to weaken clean air safeguards, endangering all Americans.

We know air pollution causes heart disease, diabetes and lung disease—and that the people suffering from these conditions are at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Independent of the ongoing pandemic, air pollution is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths across America year after year. This underscores the vital importance of pollution protections to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

Unfortunately, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has proposed to retain an outdated and inadequate standard for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution despite strong scientific evidence that it must be strengthened to adequately protect human health.

To understand what having this pollution standard means for families living in the Greater Houston area, Harvard University and EDF scientists undertook an analysis of the impacts of PM2.5 exposure across the city. We found that:

  • Exposure to fine particle air pollution in 2015 was responsible for 5,213 premature deaths and over $49 billion in associated economic damages.
  • More than 75% of the health burden was borne by communities exposed to PM2.5 levels below the current standard.
  • Meeting the current standard alone would have prevented 91 deaths of the more than 5,000 premature deaths due to fine particle pollution.

By ignoring the scientific evidence and retaining the current standard, Administrator Wheeler is ignoring the very real health impacts felt by Houstonians and communities across the country from exposure to fine particle pollution.

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