Air quality issues continue to plague numerous U.S. cities, particularly those in wildfire-prone California, afflicted by a lethal cocktail of urban pollution and adverse weather. This predicament has escalated to such an extent that even some rural locations, previously renowned for their pristine air, faced alarming pollution levels this summer.
In 2023 alone, signs of extreme pollution levels, labeled as “very unhealthy” and “hazardous”, have been detected in 19 counties across 11 states. Such places have received at least a “code purple” on the Air Quality Index (AQI) maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the first time.
The agency recommends everyone, regardless of health status, to limit outdoor activities and keep windows and doors closed when the air quality reaches code purple and beyond, extending to maroon, which is the worst-case scenario. Sensitive groups such as children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to serious health repercussions when the air quality hits code red, an alert level marginally lower than purple.
An unsettling report by the American Lung Association has identified deteriorating ozone and particle pollution levels in areas inhabited by over a third of Americans, amounting to roughly 119.6 million people. Among these are nearly 8.7 million adults and 1.7 million children with asthma along with over 6.6 million individuals afflicted with cardiovascular disease.
This year, smoke from Canadian wildfires wafted into the United States, generating concerning pollution levels. The rise in purple air days can be attributed entirely to these wildfires, as stated by Chet Wayland, director of the Air Quality Assessment Division.
In an unprecedented turn of events, seven out of eight North Dakota counties reported their first-ever code purple status, or higher, within a 24-hour span this May. This coincides with the onset of the Canadian wildfire season.
Interestingly, North Dakota, known for its excellent air quality, faced such extreme air pollution on May 17 that Ryan Mills, who manages ambient air monitoring at the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, initially suspected malfunctioning monitors.
By the end of August 2023, at least 195 counties across 25 states experienced days with code purple or maroon air quality. 19 such locations encountered such critical pollution levels for the first time.
Surprisingly, a majority of these counties are spread across states not typically affected by unhealthy air conditions, including Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.
However, not all instances of substandard air quality are accounted for in the data. The EPA’s recording method restricts the inclusion of locations where lower air quality persisted for less than a full day since it provides a 24-hour average air quality reading.
Wildfires are growing increasingly fierce, leading authorities to declare current resources reserved for battling these fires as “inadequate”. The sheer intensity of this wildfire season led to a record high of 410 megatonnes of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, equating to nearly a third of the total emissions from wildfires worldwide this year.
Despite significant improvements in ozone-related air pollution levels due to local and international regulations, the increased prevalence of wildfires is undoing this progress. The impact of climate change exacerbates this issue, leading not only to health risks in the short term but potentially reducing life expectancy in the long run.
This situation necessitates robust disaster preparation plans that can further protect people from these threats. Additionally, it’s important to note that air pollution disproportionately affects people of color and those of lower income brackets.
The EPA’s earlier proposal this year to tighten air quality standards suggests hope for the future. This proposed alteration, aligned with the latest World Health Organization guidelines, could extend the lives of American citizens by a cumulative 3.2 million years. To truly address this escalating issue, efforts should focus on reducing carbon emissions, which could significantly lessen the number of wildfires instigated by climate change. This demands coordinated and comprehensive global measures.