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Climate Change, Air Pollution, and Health: Making the Connection

By Hannah Noel-Bouchard and Linda Bedker
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As nurses, we know that clean air is essential for human health. Yet many people in the United States are living in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution. According to the American Lung Association’s most recent State of the Air report, more than 4 in 10 Americans are exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution. Breathing in air filled with smog, soot, and other pollutants increases the risk of negative health effects such as asthma attacks, cardiovascular and reproductive harm, and even premature death.

 

There is also a connection between air quality and climate change. A nurse’s work is essential to the survival and health protection of populations during and following climate-related events and understanding this connection is essential. In our communities, climate change is experienced as increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as wildfires, heatwaves, hurricanes, droughts, and flooding, all which contribute to serious health threats. Extreme heat, wildfires, and droughts, made worse by climate change, are of most concern when considering air pollution and health. For instance, rising temperatures contribute to increases in ozone pollution[i] and more intense and frequent wildfires worsens particle pollution[ii].

 

While most people agree that clean air is a personal right, the harmful health effects of unclean air are not distributed equally. For example, nurses who practice in clinical and public health settings addressing the health needs of vulnerable and low-income communities, witness first-hand how their patients and communities are disproportionally affected by poor air quality. Certain populations, such as pregnant women, children, the elderly, and those with chronic conditions (e.g. diabetes, hypertension) are more vulnerable to harm from breathing in dirty air. Health disparities based on race and socioeconomic statues are also noted. People of color and those living in poverty are more likely to experience higher burdens of exposure to particle pollution[iii], and almost half of U.S. Latinos live in cities that ranked highest for ground-level ozone pollution.[iv]

Advancing Clean Air, Climate, and Health: Opportunities for Nurses

 

As the largest portion of the healthcare workforce, nurses are uniquely positioned to advance the goals for a heathier

Nation, including working to reduce the burden of air pollution. There are many actions that nurses and other health professionals can take to advocate and promote clean air for all. To start, nurses can take an active role in solutions by engaging and understanding the connection between one’s health and climate health. The Public Health Nursing Section of the American Public Health Association (APHA) is working organizationally to educate public health nurses on this connection. Various resources exist to learn more about how climate change impacts air quality, including resources by APHA for public health professionals and a continuing education module by the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments for nurses.

 

Public health nurses can also educate the populations and communities they care for on how to reduce exposures to dangerous air pollutants. One simple approach would be to utilize resources like AirNow.gov. AirNow.gov is a computer application that checks the air quality in different geographical areas, and offers helpful recommendations and precautions to take to reduce one’s health risk during an active wildfire. Lastly, nurses can move solutions forward that both reduce air pollution and help address climate change. In a recently released policy brief, the Academy of Nursing calls on nurses to advocate for public policies and systems change for monitoring the effects of climate change. These include advocating within practice settings to reduce carbon-intensive energy use and working with municipalities and states to shift towards renewable and clean energy. These solutions not only decrease greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and air pollution, but they help create a healthier more livable future for all Americans.

 

The Public Health Nursing section of APHA (APHA-PHN) is a member of the Nursing Collaborative on Climate Change and Health, a partnership between Climate for Health and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE). Hannah Noel-Bouchard and Linda Bedker, represent APHA-PHN on the Nursing Collaborative.  ANHE is a partner of Climate for Health, a coalition of health leaders committed to caring for our climate to care for our health.  Founded by ecoAmerica, Climate for Health offers tools, resources, and communications to demonstrate visible climate leadership, inspiring and empowering health leaders to speak about, act on and advocate for climate solutions. Learn more about our partnership and the resources available to you here.

 

[i] American Lung Association. (2018). State of the Air 2018. Retrieved from http://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/.

[ii] Climate Central. (2017). Western wildfires undermine progress on air pollution. Retrieved from http://www.climatecentral.org/news/report-wildfires-undermining-air-pollution-progress-21753.

[iii] Mikati, I., Benson, A.F., Luben, T.J., Sacks, J.D.,& Richmond-Bryant, J.(2018). Disparities in distribution of particulate matter emission sources by race and poverty status. American Journal of Public Health, 108(4), 480-485.

[iv] Qunitero, A., Constible, J., Declet-Barreto, J. & Madrid, J. (2016). Nuestro futuro: Climate change and U.S. Latinos. Retrieved from https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/nuestro-futuro-climate-change-latinos-report.pdf.