In Philadelphia, Climate Change Can Take Your Breath Away

But plans to cut local carbon pollution might help this asthma capital shake its wheezy reputation.

At the Clean Energy March in Philadelphia, July 2016

Credit: Mark Dixon/

It’s like trying to breathe through a pool of water.

You can’t get air in or out.

It comes without warning and feels like an elephant sitting on your chest.

These vivid, terrifying descriptions, collected by the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice, will probably sound familiar to the more than 166,000 Philadelphians who have asthma—more than 1 in 10 residents.

In 2015, Philadelphia was the number three asthma capital in the country (behind Memphis and Richmond), according to an annual report from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, which publishes one of the few top 100 lists you don’t want to be on.

In addition to the prevalence of the lung disease, Philly clinched the third spot due to its worse-than-average air quality and number of annual asthma-related emergency room visits. Unfortunately, these numbers will likely get higher, thanks to climate change.

Pennsylvania’s average yearly temperature has already risen by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th century. The mercury could climb up to 11 degrees higher by the end of this century, depending on how much the world manages to slash emissions. (Earth to Donald Trump: Come in, please.) All that extra heat can have a significant impact on health, especially in urban areas like Philadelphia, where heat island effects are for real. As the temperature rises, so do heat-related illnesses and deaths, particularly for people who are old, young, or sick.

And for asthma sufferers, the heat can give a boost to irritants in the air that inflame airways and trigger attacks. A new series of maps published by NRDC outlines how two such irritants—ozone and ragweed pollen—could affect 127 million Americans as our climate changes.

Ground-level ozone, also known as smog, forms when pollution from car exhaust and power plants react with sunlight and heat. “Some have likened [breathing ozone] to getting a sunburn on your lungs,” says Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist at NRDC. In its 2017 State of the Air report, the American Lung Association gave Philadelphia an F for ozone pollution. If heat plus pollution equals ozone, it’s easy to see how higher temperatures could lead to even more smoggy days. “Even for healthy people, you can feel that it’s harder to get a lungful of breath on an ozone alert day,” Knowlton says.

Credit: Overflightstock Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

So why is Philadelphia, in particular, such a hot spot for smog exposure? Location, location, location, says Mark Szybist, a senior advocate at NRDC who promotes clean energy policies in Pennsylvania. The Keystone State, along with others in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, is in the Ozone Transport Region—an area of the country that’s downwind of major pollution sources in states like Ohio. As a result, says Szybist, “there are higher levels of ozone than you would expect if you were looking just at sources of pollution within the borders of the state.”

That’s right, pollution heeds no borders, but the City of Brotherly Love can’t entirely blame its western neighbors for its cough-causing air. Philadelphia has upwards of 25 refineries and, like any major city, plenty of car exhaust.

Couple that dirty air with Philly’s high levels of ragweed pollen, one of the most common causes of seasonal allergies, and you have a real toxic brew. NRDC’s 2015 “Sneezing and Wheezing” report describes in detail how the ozone and ragweed can interact to worsen respiratory health—what Knowlton calls a “double whammy effect.” (By the way, Philadelphia also made NRDC’s 2015 list of top 10 sneeziest and wheeziest U.S. cities—another list you don’t want to be on.)

A single ragweed plant can produce a billion pollen grains in a season, and scientists have shown that higher levels of carbon dioxide make ragweed plants grow bigger and produce even more pollen for longer periods of time. And what’s highly uncomfortable for hay fever sufferers is downright dangerous for asthmatics—high pollen levels have been linked to spikes in children’s asthma hospitalizations.

To keep climate change and its effects on smog and ragweed pollen in check—in Philly and in other urban areas—the most necessary and obvious step is to lower emissions of heat-trapping carbon pollution. But President Trump is doing his darndest to undermine federal efforts to do so. In March, he ordered a review of the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s proposal to cut carbon pollution from U.S. power plants. Trump then added the cherry on top of this rapidly melting sundae in June by announcing his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (notice I say his withdrawal).

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney
Credit: Jared Piper/PHL Council Fellow

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has been swift in his criticism of Trump’s environmental policies. Following the executive order on carbon pollution, Kenney called Trump’s move “irresponsible” and “disastrous.” As for Trump’s proposed budget for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the mayor said it “would have immediate and drastic effects on many programs that Philadelphians rely on, such as those that support local air pollution prevention efforts.”

Kenney is one of the 331 U.S. mayors (as of this writing) who have signed an open letter promising to “adopt, honor, and uphold the commitments to the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement” and recently committed Philadelphia to transitioning to 100 percent clean energy by 2035. City and state governments need to take the climate helm because, as Juan Declet-Barreto, coauthor of the “Sneezing and Wheezing” report, bluntly says: “There’s zero federal leadership on these things now.”

Philadelphia knows it has more work to do. “Mayor Kenney came into office [last year] really looking to take an equity lens,” on climate mitigation, says Richard Freeh, a senior program manager in Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability. The office recently launched a new program to bring its initiatives—including projects on healthier air, reduced carbon pollution, and better access to affordable low-carbon transportation—to underserved communities. Philly also participates in NRDC’s and the Institute for Market Transformation’s City Energy Project, which helps municipalities improve the energy efficiency of their buildings.

An additional positive step the city could take to curb local air pollution is incentivizing electric vehicles, Szybist says, while updating its policy on electric vehicle parking (a source of controversy recently). And even if Trump isn’t a fan, Pennsylvanians can still urge their representatives to implement the Clean Power Plan. NRDC’s new report emphasizes the need for the state to develop “a concrete plan” for the health impacts of dirtier air.

Because you can’t see carbon dioxide, Szybist says that convincing people that climate change matters is one of the hardest things to do. Ozone and ragweed, however, have immediate, direct effects on people’s lives. It will soon be clear in smoggy, sneezy cities nationwide that climate action is a breath of fresh air.

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