Climate Change Still Threatens Air Quality—and Your Health

The Air Quality map NRDC is releasing today highlights why it’s a bad idea for the United States to pull back from climate action. Our analysis finds that nearly 127 million Americans live in zones with pollen-producing ragweed and ozone pollution that can threaten our next breath—and it describes the ways that climate change fuels both those air quality issues.

Scientific assessments have shown that warmer temperatures, fueled by climate change, promote the formation of more ground-level ozone. Warmer temperatures over longer seasons also lengthen the ragweed pollen-production season in many parts of the US. These pollutants—ozone and pollen—can worsen existing respiratory allergies and asthma, and serve as triggers for asthma attacks. Those air pollutants can mean days away from work, from school, or a trip to the emergency room. Climate change is going to make it more difficult for people who struggle with respiratory illness to stay healthy. That includes the 24 million children and adults in America with asthma. We all know someone with asthma. Even healthy people who work or play outside on high-ozone, high-pollen days can get runny noses, itchy eyes and raspy breathing.

Back in 2007, NRDC first connected the dots between climate change, ozone and ragweed. We recognized that they both can be big problems in late summer, a season that’s now just around the corner, because high late-summer temperatures make ozone conditions worse, and fall is when ragweed starts to produce allergenic pollen.

Our maps explained what was going on right in our own backyards. In 2015 we first updated the maps, and today we’re very excited to launch a new update with the most currently-available data. This is the first layer of a new, updated NRDC Climate and Health Map series, with more maps to come through the summer and fall.

Our new Air Quality map being released online today, developed by NRDC’s Science Center, Climate and Clean Air Program, and Communications and Web teams, shows that 40 percent of Americans—or about 127 million people—live in areas that had both unhealthy ozone days and pollen-producing ragweed in recent years. Today’s maps reflect the latest data available—from 2011 to 2016.

Some of the top 25 states with the highest percentages of residents living in counties with both unhealthy ozone days and pollen-producing ragweed include: the Northeast (including Washington DC, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, among others), the Great Lakes states (including Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin), some states in the south, including Virginia and Missouri, and several in the West like Colorado and Utah.

Our map is Exhibit A for why protecting public health in the face of climate change is so important, instead of taking dangerous steps to unravel historic climate action. State-level web pages accompany the national map, with information about how much we stand to gain by helping keep people healthy when we reduce carbon pollution and move toward clean energy and efficiency measures at the state level. That’s how we’ll ensure that Americans, today and tomorrow, have clean air to breathe.

Since NRDC first published these maps in 2007, a lot has changed in the world of climate and health. Health professionals are now very engaged in addressing the health impacts of climate change. Physicians, nurses, public health and medical networks and community groups are leading a momentum to build healthier, more secure communities in the face of climate change, and the momentum is growing. By trimming carbon pollution, we step back from the brink of climate disaster. There are a lot of positive, health-protective steps we can take now that the online maps describe. It’s a huge opportunity we can’t afford to squander. The future is watching us.

About the Authors

Kim Knowlton

Senior Scientist and Deputy Director, Science Center

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