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Apr 22, 2021 - 02:54 pm CDT

Inhale, exhale. The simple act of breathing is something that most of us have taken for granted at some point or another. But, breathing clean, fresh air is necessary for people to survive and thrive. Perhaps there is no better time to focus on air quality and respiratory health than during a global health crisis spurred by a disease that targets the lungs. 

Because of human-induced climate change, our air quality is in danger of becoming worse. Wildfires, one of the worst causes of air pollution, are happening more often due to our changing climate. Suffer from seasonal allergies? Climate change is making our allergy season worse and longer, too. And, hotter temperatures can lead to an increase in ozone, a harmful pollutant. 

Since it’s not always easy to “see” when the air quality is unhealthy, it’s helpful to know what causes poor air quality and what we can all do to keep our air clean.

The “bad” kind of ozone and particulates 

In Central Texas, our air quality is generally pretty good. However, in the summer, there are times when levels of “bad” ozone — called “ground-level ozone” — reach concentrations that can negatively affect public health. This type of ozone is created when sunlight triggers a chemical reaction between oxygen-containing molecules and pollution that comes from cars, power plants, factories, and other sources. When concentrations become high, “Ozone Action Days” are triggered. We typically have between 5-10 Ozone Action Days per year in Central Texas.

For sensitive populations, such as the very young or elderly, people with respiratory issues like asthma, and those who work outside, avoiding outdoor activity is recommended on Ozone Action Days. This is because ozone is a highly reactive molecule that can irritate and damage airways and make it difficult to breathe. On Ozone Action Days, people can help by avoiding traveling alone in a car, and instead, work from home or use a sustainable form of transportation. Conserving energy is also especially important on these days.

Another big contributor to air pollution is particulates — the fine and coarse particles that spew from construction sites and things that burn fuel, like cars, power plants, and wildfires. Particulates, unlike ozone, can cause health problems year-round. Like ozone, particulates have been linked to a worsening of lung problems, especially asthma. Both particulates and ozone also are associated with increased cardiovascular events, such as stroke and heart attack.

Knowing our history

In Austin, the City’s 1928 master plan segregated the city along racial lines and forcibly relocated Black and Hispanic/Latinx communities East of what is now IH-35. East Austin was then designated for industrial development, meaning communities of color living in this area were now more likely to live near a source of ground or air pollution. These health inequities still persist to this day, and low-income communities and communities of color are statistically more likely to suffer from asthma and other breathing disorders in our community.

Additionally, people who live near major roadways with higher concentrations of particulate matter, such as IH-35, are more likely to develop lung issues. Particulate pollution is also linked to cognitive decline in the elderly. This can have a big impact on people experiencing homelessness, for example. 

The ability to breathe clean air is a human right, and we must continue to work together to advocate for clean air in our community. We hope you’ll join us during Air Quality Awareness Week, May 3-7, to help spread the message about why air quality is so important for our health. You can check current air quality conditions in our area at www.airnow.gov and visit our website for more information.

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