As our screens and newspapers become flooded with headlines that highlight rising temperatures, non-traditional weather patterns, and disruptions of ecosystems, more and more people are wondering about the relationship of climate change to air quality and how air pollution might affect their health in a personal way.
Climate change poses a number of potential long-term public health threats, such as food shortages and vector-borne diseases, increased pollen levels and worsening air quality as a result of human activity and climate events around the world. The death of 9 year old Ella Kissi-Debrah this year could lead to the first person having 'air pollution' listed as the cause of death in the UK.
According to a new global report from The Lancet Planetary Health Journal, more than 70% of regions surveyed show significant increases in the length of their pollen seasons in conjunction with rising temperatures. Allergy sufferers are being exposed to extended pollen seasons than ever before. At the same time, climate change has been tied to large spikes in air pollutants like particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone — a key component of smog.
The Impact of Climate Change & Air Pollution
Ultimately, the climatic changes happening around the world and the associated impact on the air we breathe affects us all in some way, but differently. We've outlined some of the ways specific population groups can be affected by climate change and air pollution trends in more detail below:
Asthma & Allergy Sufferers
To understand how climate change impacts pollen levels, it’s important to know that not all pollen is the same. Depending on a few factors — including plant type, location, and seasonal variation — pollen-emitting plants release pollen at different times of the year (and for different periods of time).
Trees typically emit pollen during the spring, grasses emit pollen more heavily during the summer, and ragweed emits pollen during fall. As such, the annual pollen emission period tends to begin after the last vernal freeze and ends during the first autumnal freeze.
On account of changes in climate worldwide, winter now begins later and ends earlier each year. in certain areas like the mountainous Western US. This change gives plants more time to grow, flower, and produce pollen — thus extending the time period during which high levels of pollen can be found in the air.
In the presence of heat and sunlight, chemical emissions from cars and factories react to form ozone, a harmful pollutant. As average temperatures rise, ozone levels accelerate. Climate change has also been linked to the elongation and worsening of droughts. Warmer temperatures and droughts combine to create the perfect conditions for wildfires. Wildfires emit a number of harmful pollutants and are associated with higher levels of Ozone that impact not only residents of the immediate area, but also those living in communities thousands of miles away.
Ozone is particularly dangerous to children since their lungs are still developing and they often spend more time outdoors than adults. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ozone can inflame the cells that line a child’s upper airways and lungs, harming the respiratory system “like a sunburn damages the skin.”
Long-term exposure has also been linked to asthma development in children and young adults, but even short-term exposure can be harmful, making it more difficult to breathe during outdoor activities.
Exposure to high pollen levels can yield negative effects on pregnant women. Recent research reveals that a pregnant person’s exposure to high pollen levels can increase the likelihood that their unborn child will develop early asthma.
What’s more, research suggests that, as levels of PM and ozone increase as a result of climate change, pregnant women exposed to these pollutants are nearly 13 percent more likely to have a miscarriage. Air pollution can also have an impact on low birth weights, congenital defects, premature births, and even autism.
Individuals who perform rigorous activity outdoors, such as athletes or manual laborers, are more susceptible to the dangers of climate change and air pollution. That’s because they tend to take more breaths per minute orally, inhaling more ambient air and thus bypassing the body’s built-in nasal filtration system.
When pollutants are inhaled more deeply during physical activity, they can diffuse into the bloodstream more rapidly. As a result, athletes are more prone to many of the health problems associated with air pollution, including damage to the lung airways, asthma, heart attack, and stroke.
The longer we live, the greater our exposure to air pollution. In general, older individuals thus have “dirtier” lungs compared to younger adults, making them more prone to respiratory problems.
Further compounding this issue, the body’s ability to filter out and dispose of air pollution weakens as we age, minimizing our ability to compensate for the effects of environmental hazards. As a result, air pollution is more likely to aggravate symptoms associated with heart disease and stroke, COPD, asthma, and diabetes within elderly populations.
Ozone and PM — two of the pollutants directly tied to climate change — are the most likely to affect the health of older individuals and can lead to premature death, heart attack, and chronic bronchitis.
Introducing Our New Personal Exposure Feature
The evidence linking climate change to rising pollen and pollution levels is mounting. However, with knowledge comes power. When you know what is in the air you breathe, how you're likely to be impacted, and when air quality is at its lowest, you'll have the tools needed to make smarter decisions regarding your daily activities.
This is the exact logic behind the new personal exposure feature we've introduced to our mobile app. You can now track your exposure to pollution over a period of 24 hours and see how making informed choices to avoid poor air quality has a direct impact on the air you breathe, with clear short-term and long-term health implications:
At BreezoMeter, we think the only way to really limit pollution exposure is to adopt a completely personalized approach to air quality reporting. This is because air quality is extremely dynamic; 2 people living in the same house could be sensitive in different ways and show completely different exposure patterns based on their particular routines and daily choices.
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Download our app & try out our new personal exposure feature for yourself - we'd love to get your feedback!