In California, where not even national parks are spared by air pollution, a growing number of health professionals are ringing the alarm bell and calling for action.
If you’re staying in California, United States for longer than it takes to appreciate San Francisco, your next stop is likely to be Yosemite National Park. Immortalized by Ansel Adam’s stunning black-and-white photography, this park is famed for its giant, ancient sequoia trees and the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome.
Over 4 million people descend on the park every year. Visitors imagine this to be a pristine environment. Yet Yosemite, like all national parks in California, has “significant air pollution problems”, according to a recent report from the National Parks Conservation Association. A staggering 85 per cent of United States national parks have air that is unhealthy to breathe at times. Even these cherished places haven’t escaped our addiction to fossil fuels.
The National Parks Conservation Association is working with Central California Asthma Collaborative to cut air pollution in Fresno and other areas of the San Joaquin valley, a region known as the gateway to Yosemite. In March this year they, along with doctors, nurses and other community leaders from Fresno, joined Unmask My City, a global collaboration of health professionals raising awareness about the severe health risks of air pollution.
Air quality in the valley can be so poor that on at least 200 days a year the 500,000 residents of Fresno are exposed to unhealthy air. As many as one in six children have asthma, compared to the national average of one in twelve.
Seven-year-old Kira is one of those children. She lives with her mother Shirley in Wasco, another city in the San Joaquin Valley, and loves playing outside, but is often forced to stay indoors because playing outside can have catastrophic effects for her.
Kira’s asthma is aggravated by air pollution from several sources, including the two main highways close to her home, and agricultural pollution from pesticides and diesel trucks driving in and out of nearby fields.
It limits where and when she can accompany her mom on trips outside, even those as routine as a grocery run.
“Air pollution affects my daughter and our whole household because we can’t even take her to the store and if nobody can watch her I have to put a mask on her,” says Shirley.
Emissions from growing traffic, agricultural burning and industrial facilities are the main sources of air pollution in the Valley. Poor local land use decisions have attracted large distribution centres, warehouses and dairies, intensifying traffic on two of the busiest highways in the United States. This has had negative impacts on local air quality in a region already suffering from climate change-induced droughts and wildfires, such as the 2018 wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise in northern California.
Kevin Hamilton, Central California Asthma Collaborative’s Chief Executive Officer, notes that “Air pollution is a growing public health crisis in our state, increasing the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, respiratory diseases and strokes. Children, the elderly and those already suffering from a disease are especially vulnerable.”
Not content with raising awareness, important as this is, Unmask My City is working with others for policy and technical solutions to clean up our air. These include measures such as encouraging active travel—walking and cycling—which avoid emissions and are also good for mental and cardiovascular health, and muscular strength.
Helena Molin Valdes, Head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat hosted by UN Environment, applauds the work of the health sector to draw attention to the solutions to mitigate air pollution. “Doctors can help highlight the urgency—and call for the State of California to act to achieve their comprehensive and strong targeted emissions levels for 2030. Compared to 2013 levels, California’s goal is to reduce black carbon emissions by 50 per cent, and methane and hydrofluorocarbon emissions by 40 per cent.”
A first step in tackling air pollution is to increase local monitoring to provide baseline data, which can then be used to keep track of pollution hotspots and communicate those to the community. Such community-based monitoring system is already in place in Bengaluru, India since April 2019, with 15 air quality monitors set up across the city, and 25 more on the way. Central California Asthma Collaborative wants to see the same system implemented there too.
It should be no surprise that doctors and health professionals around the world are increasingly alarmed about air pollution, which has become the world’s top environmental health threat.
Tackling air pollution is not easy, but breathing isn’t really a choice. This World Environment Day must mark a turning point for action to improve air quality and save lives.
Air pollution is the theme for World Environment Day on 5 June 2019. The quality of the air we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. Learn more about how air pollution affects you, and what is being done to clean the air. What are you doing to reduce your emissions footprint and #BeatAirPollution?
The 2019 World Environment Day is hosted by China.