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The Severe Weather Event We Routinely Ignore: Poor Air Quality

Air pollution is just as fatal as hurricanes, and it profoundly affects our well-being. Yet we no longer treat it as a crisis.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Every summer in Brooklyn, for at least a few weeks, it gets harder to breathe. Air quality alerts burn up our phones, warning us to stay inside. By all rights, it ought to be treated as a severe weather event like a storm or fire: Air pollution puts us in physical danger, leaving us more vulnerable to lung diseases, heart attacks, and even Covid-19. Even in the United States, which enjoys cleaner air than much of the world, air pollution killed an estimated 230,000 people in 2018.

But bad air isn’t just killing us. That would be disturbing enough, but pollution  affects us in other, less obvious ways that deserve equal attention. In the past few months, the writer Sarah Miller has been documenting what fire season feels like in northern California. “It seems to me a lot of people think if you’re not literally evacuating everything is Jim Dandy,” she wrote recently in her Substack newsletter. “Someone wrote me the other day and asked if I was in danger from any of the fires and I said ‘No, not at this time’ and they wrote back, ‘I’m glad you’re Ok’ and I was like, Uh thanks, but … ‘I am pretty fucking far from Ok.’” 

Bad air profoundly erodes our well-being. North and South, an 1855 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, is famous partly for offering detailed early descriptions of sickness caused by industrial air pollution—one central character dies from what we now call byssinosis, due to inhaled textile fibers. But strikingly, the book’s first introduction to the fictional town of Milton’s terrible air quality emphasizes how bad it also feels:

The thick yellow November fogs had come on; and the view of the plain in the valley, made by the sweeping bend of the river, was all shut out when Mrs. Hale arrived at her new home … everything inside the house still looked in disorder; and outside a thick fog crept up to the very window, and was driven into every open door in choking white wreaths of unwholesome mist. “Oh Margaret! Are we to live here?” asked Mrs. Hale in blank dismay. 

The evidence that air pollution affects our mental health goes far beyond the literary or the subjective. A 2019 review of studies conducted between 1974 and 2017 found that long-term exposure to bad air was associated with depression, anxiety, and suicide risk. A 2012 study found that New York City children exposed to high levels of urban air pollutants in utero were more likely to develop depression, anxiety, and attention problems. A study in Cincinnati seven years later found that for children, even short-term exposure to poor air quality could be linked to suicidal thoughts, intense stress, and sadness. A more recent study, released by the Yale School of Public Health this year, found bad air quality linked to increased numbers of mental health outpatient visits, based on data from two large hospitals in Nanjing, which is one of many extremely polluted cities in China.

Some of these effects are neurological: Poor air quality can reshape our brains in dangerous ways, which is why children and adolescents, with brains still developing, are especially vulnerable. These effects are seen in laboratory mice, who are probably not terribly susceptible to existential dread but nonetheless become depressed and unmotivated when exposed to the particulates in polluted air. But for humans, our understanding and experience almost certainly makes matters worse. Depression and anxiety are a rational response to poor air quality: Not being able to breathe outdoors is awful! And the visual impact of smog on the human spirit that Mrs. Gaskell describes, although it might be hard to quantify, is very real.

The outdoors should be a solace. Outside is a place to take a quick break from work or school, or to spend a leisurely and restorative day. Many of us developed a particular dependence on the outdoors as we survived the pandemic. We grew more attached to our local parks and gardens. We learned how to identify more of our local birds and plants, and how critical nature was to our sanity. We took walks. During lockdown in February, The Wall Street Journal asked, “Is Two Hours Outside the New 10,000 Steps?” This may be particularly true for children—even before the pandemic, it could feel as if the whole point of parenting was to make sure your kid went outside—but getting outdoors is essential to mental health for adults, as well. Bad air quality is like poor sleep; it robs us of so much that we need if we are to feel OK.

Miller writes indignantly of the friends around the country who ask if she plans to leave her home in Nevada City, California, a question she finds blinkered and insensitive, partly because most people can’t leave but also, it seems to bury a crisis shared by all of humanity in specificity and the logic of personal choices. I admit I used to speculatively plot my escape during the smoggier New York City months, probably as a way to contain my anxiety. 

I’d wonder: Would my son be safer playing sports outside all summer if we moved to coastal Massachusetts? Canada? Iceland? How about the Faroe Islands? An archipelago I have never visited but enjoy on Instagram, the Faroe Islands enjoy excellent air quality and look like a nice place to telecommute if you’re not grossed out by fermented fish. Obviously, this line of thought is absurd. It isn’t public-spirited, and besides, escapism is doomed: A good friend of mine lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, exactly the sort of place to which the privileged flee the cares of the plebeian world—and a place that has also suffered terrible air quality from the climate change–fueled West Coast wildfires this summer. There’s nowhere to go.

In New York City, we have it easy compared to millions of people around the world. No major U.S. city has air quality as bad as the worst-ranking cities in the world today, thanks in part to deindustrialization but also to the Clean Air Act, a crucial intervention that turned 50 years old last year. (The lack of automobile and truck traffic and other fossil fuel assaults during the pandemic has also helped clean up our air even more in recent months.) However, enforcement of the Clean Air Act’s provisions has slipped. The wildfires have not helped: All the worst U.S. air quality in 2020 was in California.

Experts agree that air pollution is not a hard problem to solve. We need less traffic, more curbs on the fossil fuel industry’s freedom to poison us, and more enforcement of these limits. We’ve done much of this before, and so have other governments. We can do it all again and much more—and we must do so before, like the lab mice, we lose our motivation. Perhaps it should comfort, as well as disturb us, to know that the measures we take to breathe a little easier on the soccer fields of Queens can also help stop California’s forests from burning.