An international study led by researchers from the University of Waterloo found that in about 75 years, there will be four times the number of air quality alerts in the U.S. than there currently are.
Rebecca Saari, who was the lead author of the study, says the team, which is composed of researchers from schools on both sides of the border, is currently working on a similar study for Canada and is seeing similar results.
“Generally, the air is a little cleaner here (in Canada). We have fewer alert days here than in the U.S.,” the associate professor at the University of Waterloo told Global News. “But we do see the same kind of general trends of things worsening if we don’t reduce emissions, mainly in our major cities.”
The study, titled Health and equity implications of individual adaptation to air pollution in a changing climate, was published Tuesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Air quality alerts result when the Air Quality Index gets too high. As part of the study, researchers examined a century’s worth of air quality alerts, focusing on outdoor fine particulate matter, the most harmful pollutant.
The study focused on outdoor fine particulate matter and found that by the year 2100, Americans would be asked to stay inside for an additional 142 days a year to avoid additional health risks caused by air pollution.
The air quality alerts are issued when the air quality index, which measures air pollution, reaches higher levels.
“That’s really hard to do if you don’t have access to indoors, for example, if you’re experiencing homelessness or if you’re an outdoor worker,” Saari noted.
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“Or if your housing conditions are such that they are polluted with indoor sources or they let all the outdoor air pollution in.”
She noted that Black people and those living in care homes tend to be less likely to live in residences that would be adequate to deal with the effects of poor air quality.
“On average, we did find that alert conditions rose in places that have higher incomes, on average,” Saari said.
“But the people in those areas that will suffer the most are those in the leakier homes, which tend to have lower incomes and are often part of these disadvantaged communities.”
The study also discovered that currently, between 15 and 20 per cent of people will adjust their lives when an air quality alert is issued.
Saari believes if air quality alerts increase, more people will start to heed their call or more people will experience health issues.
“We’re going to see more alerts and more associated deaths or adaptation is going to go up,” she said. “People are going to take more steps to protect themselves and of course it’s a little bit of both.”
If people were asked to stay indoors for an extra 20 hours per week under worsening conditions, it would be better for their health but it would also cost them $5,600 per person, according to the study.
That number weighs the added health benefits vs. the loss of income as well as other factors.
While the situation may seem dire, Saari says we can slow the trend if countries stick to the measures agreed upon in the Paris climate agreement.
“We find that if we meet our Paris climate agreement targets and keep warming within two degrees from pre-industrial levels, that has massive benefits for air quality and for human health, about $5,000 per person per year by end of century,” she explained.
While climate change and air pollution are intertwined, and are of equal importance, the researcher says that if North Americans make changes to aid in both areas, it will definitely have an affect on air pollution and overall equality.
“These are both a health issue and a health equity issue,” she said. “And the things that we do to address one or the other can help each other out. So we can tackle this global problem while also having local benefits that hopefully increase fairness.”
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