Since COVID-19 confined us to our homes, we have a new respect for the outdoors and our ability to be a part of the world outside our living rooms. But what if air quality was a constant challenge and caused you to become housebound again, just as the world was beginning to reopen? This is the case for Erica D., who over the last few years has been plagued by a worsening case of asthma.
In January, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to update the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (often called NAAQS) for particle pollution. Among these changes, the Lung Association is calling for stricter particle pollution standards to help protect people like Erica from breathing in the harmful pollutants that make worse chronic lung conditions, like asthma.
Air Pollution Causing Problems
Particle pollution refers to a mix of tiny solid and liquid particles that are in the air we breathe. These particles can be inhaled deeply into the lungs, potentially causing serious health problems. Particle pollution comes from many sources including factories, power plants, motor vehicles, equipment, weather, wood burning fireplaces and wildfires. The smaller the particle, the higher the risk of health harm.
For Erica, a dangerous combination of particles from all the above-mentioned sources have made leaving her house on the outskirts of Albuquerque, NM to travel into her office in Santa Fe, NM so difficult that she has been forced to work from home more often. “We are high up, it’s dry, there is extra dirt in the air, which can cause sandstorms. And with the addition of the wildfire smoke, I feel like I am living in a Mad Max world, where the air is toxic to me,” she said.
During wildfire season, Erica is forced to stay inside with the windows shut tight and her quick-relief medication nearby. “The air was so thick with pollutants that I couldn’t breathe at all,” she said. “If I dared to leave the house even for a moment, I was putting myself at high-risk.”
But that is not the only trigger causing her symptoms to worsen. Erica’s children have returned to school where they are frequently exposed to infections that could cause a problem for Erica’s asthma. As seasons change, pollen can cause her asthma to flare-up and as she passes factories, she can feel her airways tighten. “The hard part is it is such a delicate balancing act. I don’t know what little thing may cause a flare-up. I can’t attend picnics or BBQs in the summer because I may have an attack. It is so frustrating,” she explained.
Whenever someone has uncontrolled asthma, a visit to their healthcare provider is essential to adjust their medication. Unfortunately for Erica, Long COVID and the increase in respiratory illnesses nationwide means that getting into her pulmonologist is easier said than done. “I am on prednisone, nasal sprays, and use my nebulizer every four hours, plus I keep my rescue medication on hand in case of a flare-up. But this wait on doctors and taking all these steroids is not a long-term answer,” she said.
But what can EPA do? The current annual standard for fine particles (PM2.5), governing the annual average levels of this pollutant, is 12 micrograms per cubic meter. The daily standard, governing short-term spikes, is 35 micrograms per cubic meter. Health organizations have called for those levels to be tightened to 8 and 25 micrograms per cubic meter, respectively, to best protect health and give people, like Erica, the opportunity to live their lives.
The American Lung Association calls EPA to strengthen and finalize these standards. You can learn more about how to raise your voice in support of healthy air at Lung.org/stronger-standards.
Blog last updated: August 25, 2023