Air pollution is the main environmental cause of early death, and new research from experts in Canada and the United States finds that, in about 75 years, climate change will see the number of air quality alerts in the U.S. to quadruple. As alerts increase, inequalities for those unable to adapt to protect their health will intensify.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo led the study that found that by 2100, people would need to stay indoors an additional 142 days per year to avoid additional health risks from intensifying air pollution. The increase is expected to be greatest in the eastern half of the U.S. People who are unhoused or who live in homes that allow in polluted air wouldn’t get the same health protections. Currently, only between 15 to 20 per cent of people in the U.S. restrict outdoor activity when recommended.

“We saw conditions for alerts most often in areas of high Black populations, higher incomes, and leakier homes, deepening inequalities between residents who can access clean indoor air and those in the same area who cannot,” said Dr. Rebecca Saari, an associate professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Waterloo and senior author of the study, which also included Dr. Chris Bauch from the Faculty of Mathematics.

“The prevailing advice helps the most if people can live and work in buildings with clean indoor air. It is unlikely to protect against the rising risks of climate change without additional policy. We should ensure that policy will address emissions that cause air pollution and climate change, and boost adaptation, for example, by compensating people for fixing leaky buildings.”

Staying indoors for an additional 20 extra weeks per year would have an average individual net cost of $5,600 per person, based on the cost of their lost outdoor time and the benefit of reduced health risks, and is thus neither desirable nor realistic, the study finds.

It concludes that relying on individuals to take necessary actions to adapt, such as staying inside or taking the initiative to repair air leaks, will likely be ineffective without measures to increase adherence to safety measures, say the researchers, as well as reduce costs, improve the quality of buildings, and provide help for those who live or work outdoors to adapt.

“Air pollution disproportionately impacts vulnerable people in the U.S. Reducing emissions would be the most effective way to mitigate an increasing, unfair burden of air pollution as the climate changes,” Saari said. “In order to protect our health equitably from air pollution, we need both mitigation and adaptation.”

Air quality alerts result when the Air Quality Index gets too high. As part of the study, researchers examined a century’s worth of air-quality alerts, focusing on the outdoor fine particulate matter, the most harmful pollutant.

Health and Equity Implications of Individual Adaptation to Air Pollution in Changing Climate appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from the University of Guelph, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgetown University, North Carolina State University, and University of California, Davis are also authors on the paper.

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