Illinoisans will see increases in pollution, allergens
The climate in Illinois is warming. Over the last century our average temperature has risen about 1 degree Fahrenheit and is predicted to rise much more rapidly over the next few decades. If the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to increase, the average summer highs and winter lows could increase by 5 degrees or more by mid-century. The implications for human health are serious. Rising temperatures worsen many existing health conditions, and they can also bring new threats.
Heat makes air pollution worse. On hot, still days, ground-level ozone, a severe lung irritant, forms. The number of days with dangerous ozone levels is increasing. Between 2013 and 2015, the Chicago metropolitan area had an average of 18 "ozone alert" days; that number increased to an average of 27 days between 2016 and 2018.
On these ozone alert days, people are advised to stay indoors as much as possible, avoid exercising outdoors, and plan outdoor activities for the morning or evening when ozone levels are lower. Children, the elderly, and those with asthma or other respiratory conditions must be especially cautious.
Another way air pollution harms respiratory health is through particle pollution. Particles that are 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs. Once inhaled, these particles can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects.
The American Thoracic Society warns that ozone as well as particle pollution are responsible for many emergency room visits. There are many sources of particle pollution, including burning fossil fuels, the root cause of climate change. Particle pollution increases during hot, dry weather, which may become more common in our future.
Warmer temperatures are also causing an increase in allergens in the air, corresponding to the increase in length of the frost-free season. The EPA notes that in the Chicago area, ragweed pollen is now present about two weeks longer than it was in the 1990s. Increased numbers of flooding events associated with climate change also produce mold spores that increase the risk of allergies in many people. Respiratory diseases, including asthma and allergies, cause millions of lost work days and school days annually across the U.S., and cost billions of dollars in health care.
So at current temperatures and pollution levels, we have a problem that limits outdoor activities for almost a month every year. As the climate warms and poor air quality days become more frequent, outdoor activities will have to be curtailed more and more often. What will a childhood in the Chicago suburbs be like in 30 years? How many lovely summer days will children of the future be able to enjoy?
But what if the U.S. finds a way to decrease greenhouse gas emissions meaningfully and quickly? How will the outlook for health change in Illinois as a whole? Researchers at Duke University and NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies have modeled health benefits from reducing U.S. emissions at a pace consistent with limiting the increase in average global temperature to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or less.
These studies estimate that with reduced emissions, 1,875 childhood asthma attacks and 1,622 premature deaths in Illinois would be avoided annually by 2030. Overall, there would be about 1 million fewer work days lost and $21 billion dollars in health care costs avoided annually in Illinois alone.
With health benefits like these, it's no surprise that doctors are speaking out about the need to address climate change. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics' policy on climate change supports local, national and international policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and recognizes that pediatricians are uniquely positioned to advocate for such policies.
Most Americans follow their pediatrician's recommendations on the medical needs of their children. We need to start following those recommendations with respect to climate change. We need to enact laws and regulations that will clean our air and effectively limit global warming. And, since human health is already being harmed, we need to enact those laws now.
Heidi Hartmann, co-chair of the Elmhurst Chapter of Citizens' Climate Lobby, holds a degree in environmental health from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and is an environmental scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. Stephen Bogaerts is co-chair of CCL's Northwest Suburbs Chapter and lives in Rolling Meadows.