The 10 Life-Changing Air Quality Stories of 2017

Top Air Pollution Headlines That Impact People’s Lives

In 2017, the United States faced tragic events like the California wildfires and the Atlantic hurricane season. These events not only caused great devastation but also seriously impacted air quality. In places across the world like India and China, the problem of air pollution has become even greater than before.

However nations are responding. New policies and air quality awareness campaigns have launched in Germany, London, China and India among other places across the world, and existing commitments like the Paris Climate Agreement have been reaffirmed.

Though the US withdrew from the Paris climate deal and federal policy has shifted in part due to new leadership, there are many people in the US and the world who have stepped up.

We mention a few examples of good news for air quality in this article:

  • India planted 66 million trees in 12 hours this year.
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel increased funding to $1.2 billion dollars to lower vehicle emissions.
  • For the first time since the 1800s, Britain did not burn coal for 24 hours.
  • China announced plans to introduce the world’s largest carbon market.

We are inspired by the many people across the world who are working to improve air quality.

As the year comes to a close, our team reflects on the world of outdoor air quality during 2017. This is especially important to us because we are committed to improving indoor air quality for everyone, and research has shown that changes in outdoor air quality are reflected in indoor air. Below, you will find the top 10 air-quality stories of 2017 that really stood out to us. The events listed in this article have life-changing implications for many and for our world as a whole.

1. California Wildfires

California’s Wildfires This Year Have Been Breaking Records

Satellite view of fires in Northern California

10/9/17: Fires in Napa, Sonoma, and Yuba Counties in California (Image Credit: NASA)

As Californians, we were shocked and saddened by the record-breaking devastation of this year’s tragic wildfires, which were the most destructive and deadliest in California’s history. To date, the lives of 45 people have been claimed by the fires and over eight thousand buildings and homes have been destroyed.

The strong winds that spread the devastating flames also spread wildfire smoke, causing serious and widespread air quality issues throughout California. The immediate and surrounding regions of the fires experienced unprecedented levels of air pollution. On December 7th, the Ventura County Air Pollution District tweeted that the air quality in areas directly impacted by smoke was at the Hazardous level (the highest level) as designated by the EPA; in fact, the numbers  were “off the charts for AQI readings.” On December 22, the Thomas fire in Ventura County was declared the largest fire in California history.

Wildfire smoke contains tiny particles that can pose health risks when we inhale them. Officials in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties reported more visits to the hospital. Though for some the impact of short-term exposure to smoke may be temporary, the effects can be severe for those who have underlying health conditions.

2. Dismal State Of The Air (CA)

This state has the worst air quality in the nation

Hollywood sign overlooking houses on the hill

Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles, CA (Image Credit: National Cancer Institute)

The wildfires created a situation of harmful air quality in a state where air pollution already affects the health of millions. California is home to the majority of the Top Ten cities with ozone and particle pollution in the US, according to the American Lung Association State of the Air 2017 report. Ninety percent of Californians live in counties affected by unhealthy air during the year.

Yet the state with the worst air quality in the nation is also taking great initiatives to reduce levels of air pollution. For example, the Los Angeles and Long Beach port complex, the largest single source of Southern California’s air pollution, is working to accelerate pollution reductions. They have adopted the Clean Air Action Plan, an expensive initiative that will help them phase in zero-emissions trucks and equipment by 2024.

Tech companies have also joined the efforts with an attempt to better understand local air quality. Google and Aclima partnered to map air pollution—and how it changes by neighborhood, by the hour, and by the day—in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and California’s Central Valley.

3. Hurricane Season

2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season Recap: 17 Moments We’ll Never Forget

National Guard residents aid a Houston resident in heavily flooded areas because of Hurricane Harvey

8/27/17: Texas National Guard soldiers aid Houston residents in heavily flooded areas from Hurricane Harvey storms. (Image Credit: Texas Army National Guard, 1st Lt. Zachary Wes)

Along with the 2017 wildfire season, this year’s Atlantic hurricane season was also record-breaking with 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes, and six major (Category 3 or higher) hurricanes. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria caused catastrophic damage and changed parts of Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean forever.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma landed in the US in the span of two weeks—the first time the nation experienced two landfalls of such intensity in the same season. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas and 91 lives were lost. Hurricane Irma made landfalls in more than a half dozen places, including Barbuda and SW Florida, and took at least 134 lives. In September, Hurricane Maria devastated the entire island of Puerto Rico, tragically taking 51 lives, though the death toll may be higher. Three months later one-third of Puerto Rico is still without power.

The hurricanes caused heavy flooding, with Hurricane Harvey causing a record-breaking rainfall of over 60 inches in southeastern Texas. Hurricane Irma caused 26 river gauges in northern Florida to reach or exceed major flood stage.

As was seen with past hurricanes like Hurricane Katrina, flooding and mold can be a significant air quality issue. Exposure to airborne mold spores may cause coughing and wheezing—respiratory symptoms like these were common in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After this year’s Atlantic hurricane season, it will be critical to ensure proper cleanup of water-damaged areas to prevent the health effects of mold exposure, especially for sensitive populations.

4. Paris Climate Deal

The U.S. Is the Biggest Carbon Polluter in History. It Just Walked Away From the Paris Climate Deal.

World delegates standing together

Image Credit: U.S. Embassy & Consulates in France

In 2015, a total of 195 countries signed the Paris climate agreement to combat climate change. The Paris climate deal was the first global pact designed to reduce greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. Each country, whether rich or poor, set goals to reduce carbon emissions.  The US agreed to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels, by the year 2025.

However, on June 1st of this year, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the agreement, arguing it imposed “draconian financial and economic burdens on our country.”

The US has contributed more to atmospheric carbon dioxide than any other country. This decision to withdraw from the agreement signals an end to America’s role as a global leader in working against climate change. However, it is encouraging to see that the majority of Americans—6 in 10—oppose President Trump’s decision. It is important for people to come together in support of efforts to reduce climate change because of its serious implications. On an individual level, each person can make a difference to reduce their carbon footprint.

What are the implications of climate change for indoor air quality? The U.S. Global Change Research Program says that climate change may worsen indoor air quality because altered outdoor conditions can in turn affect the levels of indoor air pollutants.

5. Air Pollution in Germany

Merkel doubles funding to help German cities fight air pollution

German Chancellor walking up a stage

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Commerce

In September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged a total of $1.19 billion dollars to clean up pollution from urban transit, specifically to help cities reduce diesel car pollution. This comes after being criticized for her close ties to the German auto industry and for failing to take action against vehicle pollution after Volkswagen admitted to cheating on US emissions tests.

The financial aid is an effort to stave off the threat of banning diesel cars. She has said the funds could be used for better public transport, electric car charging stations, and traffic control. Regardless of what really led to this increase in funds, it could mean good news for air quality in Germany.

6. India’s Air Quality

Delhi, Blanketed in Toxic Haze, ‘Has Become a Gas Chamber’

Congested street in India filled with cars

Image Credit: Lawrence Berkeley Lab, courtesy of Josh Apte

Nowadays we hear a lot about air pollution reaching dangerous levels all around the world. This year the severity of the problem in Delhi, India came to the limelight in a tweet by the chief minister of Delhi, who stated that the city had “become a gas chamber.” Politicians announced that schools were closed and flights delayed.

Around November every year, pollution from Diwali fireworks, the burning of crops in surrounding areas, and vehicle emissions contribute to a blanket of “toxic haze” over the city. The air quality situation is contributing to a growing health crisis in the region as officials struggle to implement effective policies to control air pollution. The Lancet found that air pollution was responsible for the deaths of up to 2.5 million people in India during 2015, which is more than any other country.

One doctor in Delhi suggests that the only option for Delhi’s residents is to “make the right to breathe fresh air a people’s movement.” One MIT student has found a way to do precisely that. His startup, Graviky Labs, developed technology that captures particulate matter from diesel exhaust and turns it into ink (called Air-Ink).  Many more fresh ideas like Air-Ink and effective, aggressive government measures are needed to tackle the huge air pollution crisis in India.    

7. EPA Shifts

E.P.A. Announces Repeal of Major Obama-Era Carbon Emissions Rule

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks at a podium

2/21/17: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt addresses EPA employees

In 2015, President Obama signed into effect the Clean Power Plan, with the goal of helping states replace coal with sources of electricity that would produce fewer carbon emissions. In a turn of events this October, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the chief of the agency Scott Pruitt had signed a measure to repeal the policy.

Eliminating the Clean Power Plan will make it less likely for the US to fulfill its promise made during the 2015 Paris climate deal to reduce carbon emissions. Coal and natural gas power plants produce about one-third of America’s carbon dioxide emissions, and repealing the Clean Power Plan could slow the transition away from coal power.

The EPA has also made other shifts to diminish past environmental policy, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. According to confidential internal EPA documents reviewed by The New York Times, Mr. Pruitt has put limits on the power of EPA enforcement officials to order polluters to test their emissions for violations. This has contributed to a slowdown in actions against polluters whose facilities can potentially violate laws and may even pose public health hazards, such as releasing harmful pollutants into the air.

Even the mention of “climate change” or “greenhouse gases” and other language related to global warming have been altered or deleted from the EPA’s website.

So, what is next? We are not sure. What we do know is that air pollution has serious health effects, especially for children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems or respiratory conditions. You can help keep yourself and your family safe by checking your city’s air quality report before heading outside. If air quality is bad, you may want to stay indoors as much as possible and avoid intense exercise outdoors.

8. So Many Trees

India’s Response To The Paris Agreement: Plant 66 Million Trees In Just 12 Hours

Women planting trees in India with child onlooking

A child watches as women plant saplings in India (Image credit: McKay Savage, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

We are inspired and thrilled by the story this summer that India beat its own world record in a tree-planting feat. Galvanized by India’s commitment to the Paris Agreement, 1.5 million people gathered in July to plant 66 million trees in just 12 hours. This amazing effort does well to showcase India’s focus and dedication to reduce global warming. The huge tree-planting campaign happened in Madhya Pradesh in central India, where saplings were planted along the banks of the Narmada River. The Madhya Pradesh government was able to rally 1.5 million men, women, and children to plant over 20 different kinds of trees from 7am to 7pm. This massive effort has the potential to impact air quality in the surrounding region, as well as inspire other actions as part of India’s environmental focus.

India is not alone in its efforts to use trees to absorb carbon dioxide and improve air quality. The brainchild of an Italian architect, the concept of residential high-rises filled with greenery was realized when engineers in Milan, Italy created the first of what is known as “vertical forests.” Two towers with over 100 apartments host about 500 medium and large trees, 300 small trees, 5,000 shrubs, and 11,000 plants. Together, the 20,00 plants can transform 44,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into oxygen annually.

People in Beijing, a city that ranks high on the list of the most polluted cities in the world, have also devised creative ways to use trees to reduce air pollution. They announced plans to plant a ring of trees around the city, called the “green necklace.” While ambitious, there are critics who say that this could potentially make the problem worse, by contributing to the lack of wind strength that is already affecting air circulation.

9. Coal-Free Day

For First Time Since 1800s, Britain Goes a Day Without Burning Coal for Electricity

Advertising images for poster campaign launched by London Mayor to clean up London's air

Images from poster campaign launched by London Mayor Sadiq Khan to clean up London’s air (Image Credit: twitter.com/MayorofLondon)

Coal-fired power generation is heavily used in Britain. It contributes to climate change in a big way, creating twice as much carbon dioxide as burning natural gas. In April, Britain did something they have not done since the height of the Industrial Revolution—they went a full 24 hours without burning coal for electricity. This was a watershed moment that illustrates the growing trend of reducing the share of coal in power generation.

Another great example of Britain’s leadership in reducing air pollution: London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced an advertising campaign designed to be honest with Londoners about the scale of the problem–every London borough exceeds the WHO limits for PM2.5, which are fine particles that can be toxic. The striking ads, which include the images at the top of this section, feature everyday objects covered in pollution.

10. Chinese Carbon Market

China Set to Debut the World’s Largest Carbon Market

Image Credit: NASA

As mentioned above, China’s air pollution is often unparalleled as being the worst in the world; however, a more aggressive measure than the above tree-planting example is being introduced: Chinese officials recently announced plans to debut the world’s largest carbon market. This emissions trading system is China’s version of the US Clean Power Plan (though that policy is planned to be repealed as mentioned above in number seven).

The Chinese carbon market would essentially allow caps to be placed on carbon emissions, with emission baselines based on the size of the power plant, whether they run on coal or natural gas, and other details. The trading component of the program will be limited initially and the starting prices for emission allowances are not clear yet. Despite the slow rollout of the program, it may eventually offer advantages to regions that accelerate the use of clean power.

Conclusion

The air-quality stories described in this Top Ten list can have profound life-changing implications for many people’s lives and society as a whole. The world of air quality has often gone unnoticed until now—we feel that 2017 has brought several issues of air pollution and its great importance to the limelight. We hope that this review of the most powerful air-quality news this year is helpful for you and provides a context for the inevitable life-changing events of air quality to come next year.

Headline Image: Orange County wildfires, October 2017 (Image credit: NOAA)

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