In April, I wrote about how the pandemic has changed our energy use, resulting in cleaner air. With increased adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles, we can achieve clean air, a prospering economy, and improved public health.
The latest “State of the Air” report, analyzing air quality between 2016 and 2018, shows that air quality isn’t improving. Now, faced with a public health crisis, we must focus our efforts on protecting our communities from the impacts of poor air quality.
Evidence our air quality is getting worse
According to the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report, almost 50% of Americans lived in communities that had unhealthy air pollution levels in 2016-2018. Particle pollution and days of high ozone are also on the rise. This is the fourth consecutive annual report that shows air quality is getting worse, threatening the health of our communities.
On a brighter note, the Appleton–Oshkosh–Neenah area was ranked as one of the cleanest cities in the Nation for its year-round air quality and for having zero days of unhealthy particle pollution. La Crosse also got a shout-out for having zero days of unhealthy ozone or particulate levels.
But we still have work to do. Sheboygan and the Milwaukee–Racine–Waukesha region tied for #24 on the ‘highest levels of ozone pollution’ list. These residents should not be subject to unsafe air quality.
Air quality impacts public health
Wisconsin doctors attest to the linkage between air pollution and poor health outcomes. Luckily, clean energy technologies exist today that can help improve air quality.
“When you replace coal with solar it cleans the air and makes people healthier, today. When you replace a gas car with an electric it makes people healthier, today” noted Joel Charles MD, MPH at Vernon Memorial Healthcare.
More than ever, the world is keenly focused on health, and doctors and scientists around the world are learning more every day about the novel coronavirus.
“One of the most important learnings coming from the COVID-19 pandemic is that rapid changes in air quality can have immediate and substantive benefits in terms of reduced cardiorespiratory morbidity and mortality,” said Bruce Barrett MD Ph.D., Professor & Vice Chair for Research, Family Medicine and Community Health at University of Wisconsin – Madison. “In more than two decades of work as a family physician, I have been continually impressed with the importance of environmental quality, especially the protective attributes of clean air.”
“Air pollution is a silent killer. It never makes it onto the death certificate, but, among other things, it worsens heart disease, asthma, COPD, kidney disease, immune function, and harms childhood brain development,” confirmed Andrew Lewandowski, DO, Pediatrician at GHC-SCW.
And, these impacts are not shared evenly. Lower-income and nonwhite communities often face higher exposure to pollution and unsafe air quality. Dr. Lewandoski added that “Improving air quality disproportionately benefits children, elderly, people with chronic medical conditions, people of color, and economically disadvantaged populations.”
We can learn from public health experts and take action to reduce harmful emissions by adopting renewable energy and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. People from both sides of the political aisle agree on many clean energy issues, such as maintaining current fuel efficiency standards and prioritizing renewable energy.
“Air pollution harms all people, independent of political affiliation. Regardless of how you vote, let your legislator know that you support cleaning our air because you value your health” Dr. Lewandowski said.
We have an opportunity right now to lock in the benefits of clean, healthy air. Cleaner air benefits all of Wisconsin and makes our state a better place to live, work, and play.