man standing in front of wind turbines looking up at blue sky

The biggest problem with fossil fuels is their contribution to climate change, but their most immediate impact is air pollution. In 2020, the United Nations set aside September 7 to reflect on and address air quality.

Air pollution causes an estimated 6.5 million premature deaths each year. Air quality in America improved after the passage of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. So Americans tend to think of air pollution as a “third-world problem.” Many foreign cities are cloaked in a thick layer of smog. But air pollution is much worse than we realize here in the U.S., too.

International Day of Clean Air

In 2019, the United Nations designated September 7, 2020, as the first International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies to raise global awareness of the far-reaching impacts of air pollution. Through its virtual BreatheLife educational campaign, the UN encourages individuals and member states to reduce air pollution. They hope to significantly reduce the number of deaths from pollution by 2030.

The World Health Organization has established Air Quality Guidelines for worldwide use. Each country needs its own air quality standards based on local circumstances. But we all need to work toward a global standard because air pollution does not stay in place. Much of the ozone pollution on the United States West Coast is generated in China; acid rain in Canada is largely the result of U.S. industry.

Climate and Health

Air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health both globally and in the U.S. Nearly half of Americans live with unhealthy ozone or particle pollution, which is a significant environmental justice issue.

Fighting climate change and improving air quality are intrinsically linked, as fossil fuel use is the primary cause of climate change and the primary source of particulate air pollution. In fact, recent research confirms that air quality benefits would be enough to justify the cost of switching to renewable energy even if climate change was not a factor.

Without action, stroke, chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, and heart attack deaths attributable to air pollution could increase by 50% by 2050 – leading to roughly 4.5 million premature deaths in the U.S. alone.

Blue Sky Actions

To save lives and maintain blue skies, one of the most effective steps individual Americans can take is to reduce their transportation footprint. That means driving less, never idling or “warming up” your engine, and driving the most fuel-efficient vehicle possible.

We can also avoid the use of highly polluting two-stroke engines in leaf blowers and other gas-powered tools. Wood smoke is also a pollutant; we must respect burn bans and burn less wood at other times. Cigarettes are not a significant source of pollution by quantity, but they have an outsized health effect and contribute to water pollution. Aerosol sprays and items that emit VOCs also release greenhouse gases.

The Clean Air Act successfully reduced pollution levels in the U.S., but the past administration marked its 50th anniversary with repeated rollback attempts. Voters can learn about current air pollution challenges and take action to ensure elected representatives know that environmental regulations are environmental protections. You can also contact your elected officials personally to let them know that clean air is important to constituents like you.

Originally published on September 7, 2020, this article was updated in September 2022.

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.