Hurricane season is an unsettling time for much of the country. Severe weather brings immediate fears about home damage, evacuations, and even loss of life. Unfortunately, climate change has intensified these fears even further.
But, beyond the immediate danger of severe weather lurks an insidious danger that many are not even aware of… air quality.
What is the current state of air quality?
Unfortunately, not very good. The American Lung Association’s 2021 State of The Air Report revealed that more than 40% of Americans are living in polluted areas. That means that over 135 million people are living in places with unhealthy air quality in the United States alone.
The problem is even more severe globally. The WHO reports that 9 out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds WHO guidelines, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures.
How does poor air quality affect health?
The impact of pollution can be devastating. In fact, the combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about seven million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.
Which pollutants are the most dangerous?
The State of the Air uses the presence of two of the most widespread and dangerous air pollutants in order to determine the nation’s air quality: ozone and fine particulate matter.
Ozone is a gas composed of three atoms of oxygen that occurs both in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and at ground level. When it is present on the ground level, ozone can cause an array of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and airway inflammation. It also can harm lung function and exasperate the symptoms of bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma, leading to increased medical care.
Ozone is the main ingredient in “smog” and is most likely to reach unhealthy levels on hot sunny days in urban environments. But ozone is not limited to urban areas. Since it’s transported by wind, both suburban and rural areas can experience high ozone levels.
Fine Particulate Matter (PM)
PM are a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope. Particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, also known as fine particles or PM2.5, pose the greatest risk to our health. Research has shown that exposure to PM2.5 can result in a range of heart and lung problems and, in extreme cases, even death.
How does severe weather make air quality worse?
Recent studies have shown that the wind generated by hurricanes and other severe weather can spread around a toxic mix of pollutants. In one study, led by Guor-Chen Fang of Huangkuang University in Taiwan, a team of researchers monitored the number of particles floating in the air when typhoons Sinlaku, Hagupit and Jangmi swept through the area in September 2008. What the study found was that particulate matter increased dramatically with the storms. Particles ranging from coarse grit down to fine grains 2.5 microns in diameter were mixed into the affected air, all of which can have an adverse effect on our health.
Depending on their locations, other storms can do even greater harm. For instance, in 2020 Hurricane Laura tore through a region that is home to dozens of major oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and plastics facilities, spreading more than more than 4 million pounds of extra air pollution throughout the region.
But, it isn’t just the immediate air that is concerning. Water and moisture from severe weather can leak into homes causing mold infestations which can be almost impossible to eradicate.
How can we keep our families safe?
Combat climate change: The best way to prevent health issues caused by severe weather is to work towards a more sustainable environment. While personal choices matter, the fastest way to combat climate change is to support legislation and elected officials who are pushing for immediate action.
Choose your location wisely: As far as our personal health is concerned, while there is no location that is immune to climate change, there are some places which are faring better than others. If you have the flexibility to choose your location, there are some useful online resources to help you find some of the safest places to live.
- A brief overview of how climate change is expected to affect each U.S. region
- An interactive tool that will enable you to look up how many hot days your city or a city near you could experience during future summers
- An interactive map that shows you what your city’s climate is likely to feel like in 60 years by comparing it to the present-day climate of another city
- Maps that show where wildfires have burned recently and which places are most at risk
- An article on how climate change could affect air quality
- An interactive tool that shows how sea-level rise could affect coastal areas
- A map that shows how precipitation in your region is expected to change in the future
- You can also explore projected changes in precipitation and temperature by ZIP code using this interactive tool.
Lessen your exposure to poor quality air: Check your air quality before going out, especially after severe weather. If you live in an urban area, the morning is often the best time to be outside because ozone levels are lower. If you can, walk away from traffic and near trees or shoreline, where there are typically less pollutants.