A Comparison of Air Quality in the Western United States and Northern China

The following is a featured Guest Blog from Caitlin Scarpelli.

While every area of the United States has been impacted in some way from severe weather, the west coast in particular has been ravaged by fires. Most wildfires are started by humans, but with other factors at play such as extreme heat, low rainfall and low wind movement, these fires intensify at quick and deadly rates.

Image Source: ABC News

Image Source: ABC News

The National Interagency Fire Center reports that from January 1st of this year through October 31st, 8,830,898 acres of land have burned from 52,699 wildfires. A quick look at their statistics from the last 10 years shows that while less fires are occurring, more acres are burning. This means the fires are more intense and cover larger swaths of land.

Because these fires are so intense, the mitigation of them is extremely difficult for firefighters. A lack of wind helps contain the fires, but it also contains something that is hazardous for the people who live near them: smoke.

These images from NASA Earth display the lingering smoke from the northern California wildfires and the movement of smoke across the United States by a jet stream.

Image Source: NASA Earth Twitter   

Image Source: NASA Earth Twitter

Image Source: NASA Earth Twitter   

Image Source: NASA Earth Twitter

Smoke can have significant effects on human health. It can irritate eyes, worsen heart and lung diseases, and increase fatigue, shortness of breath, and headaches. A good source of understanding the effects of smoke on human health is a rating scale called the Air Quality Index (AQI). During the wildfires, this value varied from “unhealthy for sensitive groups” all the way up to “hazardous.” The higher up the rating goes, the greater the impact on human health. In the Bay Area, AQI was the worst on record, reaching a level of 404, which is “hazardous,” the worst possible ranking. The AQI was compared to China in many areas.

Elderly, youth, and those with chronic health problems experience effects earlier than those with good health. As the AQI rose in areas, the effects on children were of top priority. Many school districts did not want children to be significantly affected, so they took the initiative of canceling school and athletic practices to limit exposure.

While the smoke was an inconvenience for quite some time, it eventually went away. Normal activities presumed. Most lives went on unaffected.

However, for children in China and other places around the world, life is consistently characterized by poor air quality. It does not simply just go away. Ultimately, their everyday lives are restrained by the health of their environment.

Image Source: NASA

Image Source: NASA

Just last December, Beijing issued a “red alert” for pollution levels. This video shows a wave of smog encapsulating the city in just under 20 minutes. The air quality level was labeled hazardous for 5 days. More than 460 million people experienced “hazardous” air quality levels.

While the Chinese government has set standards on air quality, cities rarely meet them. China is a large industrial capital, so pollution levels are high in general. But, why is air quality always so poor? Recent studies have shown that climate change is playing a role. Melting sea ice is impacting large atmospheric currents which would normally redistribute pollution elsewhere.

Therefore, the pollution that is created is just sitting there, accumulating. And as pollution levels increase from more industry, the air quality levels will only get worse.

This stagnant, polluted air has detrimental effects on those who live in Chinese industrial cities. A study released by the World Health Organization attributes 1.2 million premature deaths to outdoor air pollution each year. In addition, one study found that lives in northern China are cut by anywhere between 3 to 7 years due to pollution compared to other areas.

Because they have to deal with the adverse effects of pollution most of the year, Chinese children are spending more time indoors and their health is deteriorating. While children in the United States miss a few sports practices because of air quality levels, children in China may not even play sports or do physical activity.

One of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals is “Good Health and Well-Being.” Their goal by 2030 is to “substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination.” China’s government also has its own goal to fully comply with their air quality standards by 2035.

While air quality issues occur at large scales, healthy local air quality is something that should be advocated for. Since human health is directly impacted by our environment, we need to advocate for better environments. Everyone has the right to a safe and healthy environment which does not limit the length or value of life.

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An Upstream Research™ Original Post