There’s the old saying, made famous in a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace – a young fish swims by an older fish who says, “How’s the water?”, and the young fish says, “What the heck is water?”

Clean air is something that we all need. We breathe so many times a day – 20,000 times, in fact – that perhaps most of us don’t really think about our air quality, or even air at all. But for those who have experienced the struggle to breathe or the insult of air pollution – soot from wildfires, particle pollution from power plants or cars – we know how precious air is. Each breath is especially important for those living with a lung disease like asthma, COPD or lung cancer. For more than 26 years, breathers had no better advocate than Janice Nolen.

 My dear friend and colleague Janice was the American Lung Association’s national assistant vice president of policy. She dedicated her time, energy and career to helping us all breathe easier. She, like me and the entire American Lung Association family, understand that the quality of the air we breathe plays a critical role in our overall health, and is most dangerous to our vulnerable neighbors. So, she was fierce in her desire to protect those in need.

Janice passed away on April 15, and all of us in the clean air community are in awe of and so grateful for her legacy

A truly tireless champion of lung health, she would take time with anyone who asked to explain complex topics in ways everyone could understand – from journalists and colleagues to community members and volunteers. She was a nationally recognized authority on air pollution and a sought-after expert by news outlets such as the Associated Press, ABC, CBS, NBC, Bloomberg, Forbes, CNN, NPR and others. She received countless honors for her efforts as well as admiration from everyone with whom she worked.

In addition to being the leading voice for healthy air for the Lung Association, she was also a poet. It is that talent that is perhaps the reason why she was able to reach so many people and help them understand that air quality mattered, that they deserved clean air and that they had the right to know the quality of their air. She also helped people understand that climate change impacted air quality, which is why climate change is truly a health issue.

She was a role model and mentor to scores of colleagues who admired her intellect and skill. She was determined. We both enjoyed the passionate arguments we had so many times over the years. While I didn’t win very often, we always reached a better conclusion as a result of our conversation.  

Yesterday, the Lung Association launched the 21st annual “State of the Air Report”. Janice was the driving force behind this signature report, which has drawn significant public attention to air pollution control challenges and successes across the country, as well as to the growing threat of climate change.

She also directed the Lung Association’s actions in air quality regulatory advocacy and litigation. Her work in this area resulted in the strengthening of the national air quality standards for ozone and particle pollution – although not to the level that she knew the science demanded. She led the National Radon Action Plan Leadership Council that developed the U.S. National Radon Action Plan to reduce radon risk in five million homes. She served on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Act Advisory Committee.

And this April, the California Air Resources Board honored Janice with the 2019 Haagen-Smit Clean Air award, known as the “Nobel Prize” of air pollution and climate science achievements.

On this Earth Day, the Lung Association is remembering Janice Nolen. She helped so many people make the link between the air we breathe and our lung health. Furthermore, her efforts were critical in safeguarding public health protections from air pollution and climate change. Because of her, more people are certainly informed about air quality and climate change, moving us toward a world that when someone is asked “How’s the air?” unlike the fish, we’ll reply, “We’re working to make it better.” 

To honor Janice’s memory, the American Lung Association has created the Janice E. Nolen Healthy Air Internship, ensuring undergraduate and graduate students continue the important work of protecting our nation’s air quality. If you would like to make a donation in memory of Janice Nolen, your gift will continue Janice’s legacy with this dedicated internship to mentor young advocates.


Paul Billings is the Senior Vice President Advocacy for the American Lung Association. In this capacity, he oversees the Lung Association's asthma, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, healthy air and tobacco control advocacy program. Read More.

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