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Improving Air Quality for Americans

Big Picture:

Air pollution occurs when hazardous substances or particles, typically from human-made or natural sources, are released into the air. Human-made sources for these pollutants include vehicle and industrial emissions, while natural sources include wildfire smoke and methane. While natural causes are normal and part of the cycle, human-made ones are not.  Continuous exposure to harmful air toxins can bring serious health compromises, such as a higher risk of developing respiratory diseases, heart diseases, cancers and cognitive decline. Pregnant women, children and the elderly are considered to be the most vulnerable to air pollution.


  • Graphic From: Buchholz, Katharina, and Felix Richter. “Infographic: More Americans Exposed to Spikes in Air Pollution.” Statista Infographics, Statista, 21 Apr. 2022, https://www.statista.com/chart/27280/number-of-people-living-in-us-counties-with-unhealthy-air-pollution-levels/.

  • This figure illustrates the number of people living in U.S. counties that are living in areas with poor air quality from 2015 to 2020, ranging from exposure to ozone pollution and year-round pollution. These people are at risk of developing health conditions due to unhealthy air pollution.

Operative Definitions:

  1. Particulate matter: The particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke and liquid droplets.

  2. Ground-level ozone pollution: Often known as smog; occurs when pollutants released by various sources accumulate close to the ground and produce low-altitude clouds of emissions.

  3. Sustainable transportation: Low-to-zero emission and energy-efficient modes of transportation, such as electric vehicles.

Important Facts and Statistics: 

  1. Globally, air pollution is responsible for 6.5 million deaths each year.

  2. According to the American Lung Association, 135 million people in the United States are breathing unhealthy air.

  3. A large study of 57,000 women cited by the National Institute of Environmental Health Services found that living near highways or major roads leads to a higher risk of breast cancer.

Five-Point Plan: 

(1) Install air monitoring stations. In the most vulnerable communities, where air quality is poor, air monitoring stations can help local governments determine how much pollution is in the air and what air pollutants are being released. This can also help locate where these pollutants come from and navigate further steps in addressing the problem.

(2) Raise awareness in at-risk communities. People do not often know that the air they are breathing can put them at risk. Greater awareness in these communities can help people recognize the signs of diseases stemming from air pollution and improve their overall knowledge of its effects.

(3) Improve local forms of transportation. Individually, people can help by carpooling to work or using public transportation. Governmentally, local and state governments can invest in sustainable transportation to decrease vehicle emissions and divert highway traffic from going through heavily populated areas.

(4) Enforce EPA regulations. The government at both the local and federal levels should ensure that industries and companies do not release emissions beyond the annual standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter. Regulations also need to be enforced to prevent natural emissions.

(5) Reduce industrial emissions. The air quality of a community often depends on how many factories and plants are in it and how many emissions it releases. Transitioning to low-carbon sources of energy and increasing plant efficiency will help decrease these harmful emissions.


Why This Initiative Is Important:

Addressing the air pollution that people in the United States are exposed to is critical to maintaining a healthy population. The quality of air has improved since the 1970s with the creation of the Clean Air Act and regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency; however, people continue to suffer the unhealthy consequences of airborne pollutants and toxins. This proposal seeks to enact interventions at both the local and national levels and raise awareness of the negative health effects that air pollution brings. It is important to take comprehensive measures to ensure that vulnerable communities and people are properly protected from these harmful pollutants.


Acknowledgements: 

The following student worked on this proposal: Estefania De Caires, Stevens Institute of Technology.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Sources:

Lee, Nathaniel. “135 Million Americans Are Breathing Unhealthy Air, American Lung Association Says.” CNBC, CNBC, 2 June 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/22/heres-how-many-americans-are-effected-by-air-pollution-every-year.html

NIEHS. “Air Pollution and Your Health.” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2022, https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/air-pollution.

WHO. “Health Consequences of Air Pollution on Populations.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, Nov. 2019, https://www.who.int/news/item/15-11-2019-what-are-health-consequences-of-air-pollution-on-populations.

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