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Climate change makes it more dangerous for children to play outside, report says

Scorching heat waves and more frequent wildfires are reversing a generation of gains in clean air in the United States, a new study finds.

Peer-reviewed research from climate analysis firm First Street Foundation projects that by mid-century, increased levels of microscopic soot particles and ozone molecules entering Americans’ lungs will return to levels ‘they had in 2004 – before a decade of federal government. campaign to clean the air.

Climate change is moving the United States from a model where average days of poor air quality are “unhealthy for some to days that are unhealthy for all,” co-author Jeremy Porter told The Hill .

Porter said federal regulations led to steady improvements in air quality from 1963 until about 2016 — when the negative impacts of climate change outweighed the positive pressure of cleaner air enforcement.

“We see the largest increase during the most hazardous (air) days,” Porter said, while noting that each category of unhealthy air was “decreasing” in frequency.

“We are undoing two decades of progress on air quality,” he added.

These changes have already had subtle but profound effects, according to the study.

For example, declining air quality has increased the number of days children in Western states cannot play outside safely fivefold since 2000.

And about 14 million U.S. households (about 10%) can expect to experience at least one week of “unhealthy” air quality designated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) each year.

In some hot spots, those numbers are even worse: About 6 million of those homes — located in the West Coast, Midwest and Northeast hot spots — can expect two weeks a year of bad air.

Although these declines in air quality will occur across the country, they will be particularly pronounced on the West Coast, where ozone from baking asphalt combines with toxic particles from wildfires and from the burning of fossil fuels, First Street researchers found.

Over the next 30 years – the average mortgage term – this region will see a notable increase in bad air days, the study found. Los Angeles, for example, currently experiences 47 days per year when the air is – at minimum – dangerous for children and people with chronic illnesses; By 2054, First Street Angelenos data projects will face an additional week each year in which it will be unhealthy for these groups to be outdoors.

In California, “susceptible” groups make up the majority of the population: approximately 28 million people are elderly, young, or have heart disease or diabetes, representing more than 70% of the population.

And California is not alone. First Street researchers found that by 2054, most U.S. cities – New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and Jacksonville leading the way – will experience dramatic growth in the number of households in areas where air has been stale for at least a week and a half. per year.

These changes are already happening, driven by two very different contaminants, each linked to climate change: PM2.5 and ozone.

PM2.5 is the official shorthand for particles measuring less than 2.5 microns in diameter, or about one-thirtieth the width of a human hair.

These free-floating particles are small enough to enter the bloodstream, thereby interfering with an array of physical systems. But most of them are combustion products, either fossil fuels, agricultural waste, vehicle exhaust or floating smoke from forest fires.

As the incidence of huge and destructive wildfires has increased throughout the 21st century, PM2.5 levels have also increased, First Street researchers wrote last year in the journal Fire.

This study found that a “massive release” of PM2.5 from a wildfire was sufficient to predict the number of unhealthy air days in neighboring municipalities “without significant computational load.”

Nationally, rising PM2.5 levels from wildfires and rising ozone levels from increased heat now expose more than 83 million people – about a quarter of the population – to “unhealthy” air quality, according to First Street.

Of these, around 10 million face “very unhealthy” air quality – and 1.5 million “hazardous”, characterized by the kind of haze that has turned red eyes and bloody noses in the Northeast and the upper Midwest as wildfires grew out of control across Canada in 2017. summer 2023.

In some places, this risk is particularly concentrated. Most West Coast counties are expected to experience three weeks per year of poor air quality days, according to the First Street study.

It has been found that some hot spots, like the San Francisco metro area, California’s Central Valley, and Southern California, can expect three months of air that is too unhealthy for sensitive groups – children, the elderly or those with diabetes or heart disease – can go out.

This pollution is already costly in human lives. According to a 2021 study in Nature, PM2.5 kills about 47,000 Americans per year. By some estimates, better air quality has saved a quarter of a million American lives since the regulations took effect — improvements that are now eroding.

To compound the public health situation, although increased heat increases PM2.5 levels by causing an increase in wildfires, it also increases the impact of these increased levels on the people who breathe them. Because heat and PM2.5 burden public health. circulatory system, they combine to cause a higher increase in heart attack deaths than either would alone, according to a 2020 study.

PM2.5 impacts are the main cause of air quality decline, but not the only one. According to a First Street study published in Atmospheric Environment: .

Unlike its role in the atmosphere, where it blocks cancer-causing ultraviolet rays, ground-level ozone has a more insidious effect. Ozone forms when heat and sunlight cause a reaction between two pollutants characteristic of agricultural pollution and fossil fuels: volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxide.

Once inhaled, ozone bypasses the body’s first line of defense against pollution in the nose and mouth and reacts with the cells lining the lungs, damaging them and causing them to leak food-dissolving enzymes into the airways. , according to an EPA fact sheet. Ozone also causes “a series of events leading to lung inflammation.”

“The statistical signals are clear. We are seeing a rapid increase in air pollutants after decades of legislation aimed at reducing pollution,” Matthew Eby, CEO of First Street, said in a statement.

After decades of improvement, Eby added, “the concern going forward is that climate is much harder to regulate than industry.”

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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