Moderator Lyndsay Moseley Alexander opens the May 17 US Senate briefing, "Air Quality, Climate Change and Health: What You Need to Know."

Moderator Lyndsay Moseley Alexander opens the May 17 US Senate briefing, “Air Quality, Climate Change and Health: What You Need to Know.”

“Thank you, Clean Air Act!” was one common refrain at two congressional briefings hosted on Capitol Hill by APHA and the American Lung Association last week. Since 1970, the nation has cut the most widespread air pollutants by 70 percent. But while great progress has been made, 125 million U.S. residents still live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution. More work is needed, and the current legislation must be fully implemented, enforced and protected.

APHA has declared 2017 to be the Year of Climate Change and Health and May to be Air Quality, Lung and Heart Health Month. “Climate change is causing hotter days that directly impact the quality of our air through ozone and particle pollution that can cause or worsen allergies and asthma and negatively affect reproductive health, childhood development, the heart, lungs and even life expectancy,” notes APHA’s Surili Sutaria Patel, MS, senior program manager, environmental health, Center for Public Health Policy. “We have a responsibility to make the right choices for our most vulnerable populations — children and the elderly, among others.”

The May 17 “Air Quality, Climate Change and Health: What You Need to Know” briefings, moderated by Lyndsay Moseley Alexander, assistant vice president and director, Healthy Air Campaign, American Lung Association, underscored this point. Presentations from public health experts covered the current state of air quality across the country, what the science says about how climate change affects air pollution and health and what can be done to mitigate these impacts.

Janice Nolen, MA, assistant vice president with the American Lung Association, began with a review of findings from ALA’s “State of the Air” report. “The Clean Air Act accounts for lower year-round particle pollution and fewer high ozone days. But spikes in short-term particle pollution are alarming,” she said. “As it stands, 18 million people — nearly four in 10 — live in counties that have received an F for air quality. We can do better.

“And the economy doesn’t have to suffer while we clean up pollution,” she added. “In fact, the GDP has gone up since the EPA enacted the Clean Air Act. Clean air protections are a smart investment and greatly outweigh the costs, thanks to longer lives, avoided medical expenses and better health and productivity.”

Sharing research on how climate change affects air quality and what that means for human health were Cara Cook, MS, RN, AHN-BC, climate change coordinator, Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, at the morning House briefing and Katie Huffling, RN, CNM, director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, at the afternoon Senate briefing. “As nurses, we are seeing first-hand effects of how climate change impacts health,” Cook said. “But the Clean Air Act works. Steps taken under the act since 1990 prevented more than 160,000 premature deaths in 2010 alone.”

APHA member Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, MPH, executive director, Children’s Environmental Health Network, also shared the unique health threats that children face from air pollution and other climate change impacts. “Eighty-eight percent of the burden of disease caused by climate change falls on children. Mitigation and adaptation efforts are crucial,” she noted. “We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions, build the economic case for mitigation and incorporate climate justice into planning and adaptation. Our poorest communities are the hardest hit.”

If you would like to join the Year of Climate Change and Health, please sign up as an individual partner by pledging to take action today.

Learn more about air quality, lung and heart health month on our website.