My first experience managing the effects of poor air quality on health was as a physician assistant student while I was training at a pediatrics clinic in Aurora during wildfire season. The number of children we treated and hospitalized for asthma flares was startling. Over the nearly 10 years since, I’ve treated many more patients who struggle to breathe because of Colorado’s poor air quality caused by pollution, high ozone and wildfires. So let’s be clear: Colorado needs immediate, aggressive and sustained action to limit air pollution and the ozone issues it causes slowly degrading our health and limiting the quality of life for thousands.
That doesn’t mean Colorado has done nothing. Key legislative efforts to set meaningful targets for emissions reductions and efforts to hold the state’s worst polluters accountable present real promise to begin to change course on this worsening public health crisis. Colorado regulatory bodies are also hearing rulemakings that would help to reign in air pollutants and their emissions.
But as a physician assistant who frequently treats the very real impacts of pollution on patients, I can tell you the progress we have made doesn’t go far enough, fast enough.
I’m guessing if you’re a Colorado resident, you didn’t really need me to tell you that. You may know our state’s major metropolitan area stretching north to my home in Fort Collins is currently under censure from the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to reduce air pollution. You’ve likely noticed an increasing number of high ozone days each summer when we’re urged not to go outside. You’ve seen the smokey air filled with debris from our state’s ever-worsening and ever-lengthening wildfire seasons.
None of us are immune to the impacts of that reality on our health. Where once many of us without underlying health conditions might have been able to ignore air quality warnings, we’ve come to a place where the air is so bad on such a regular basis we all have to pay attention. Far from a time when only small children, our oldest adults and those with severe health issues needed to stay indoors, now we all face increasing swaths of our year choosing between heeding warnings to protect our health and enjoying the Colorado outdoors.
The reasons for taking the air quality issues we face as the serious public health threats they are have been very clearly proven. Exposure to ground-level ozone leads to more frequent asthma flares for adults and children and people who grew up in urban areas exposed to pollution have a higher risk of developing asthma. Breathing in these harmful pollutants also can cause stillbirths, increased infant mortality, premature births and low birth weight, in addition to the threat posed to pregnant women’s overall health. The science is also tracking increased incidences of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lung-related ailments.
For those of us in the Front Range, we are living with air quality so poor several metro areas have received failing grades from the American Lung Association. This has been true for a decade. But it’s not just the Front Range failing to control our ozone problem; across our state, we are also failing to achieve National Ambient Air Quality Standards, established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect public health.
The frustrating part of all of this is while we understand the health implications of ground-level ozone, we also know the leading causes yet fail to act boldly enough to protect public health. You won’t be surprised to hear a primary driver of pollution and ozone issues are the cars we drive and the extractive industries that exist to fuel those vehicles.
In medicine, when we understand the problem, we focus on treatment. We bring our knowledge to bear and we work to cure the patient where we can or improve the patient’s quality of life to the best of our ability. And we do it immediately before their condition deteriorates and they lose more days of their life to illness. Why can’t we take the same approach on air pollution and ozone?
We know the root causes. We have solutions available. What we seem to lack is the will to act aggressively. This is where we need elected officials and decision makers at every level to lead the charge. Tougher air quality standards and more aggressive enforcement are what we need if we are going to turn the corner on the public health emergency posed by ground-level ozone. All of us who serve our communities through medicine are waiting and watching to see who will lead on these issues and how we can support them. Meanwhile, the health issues of our state grow worse and Coloradans suffer.
Hannah Sellnow is a physician assistant in Windsor. She is an advocate for Healthy Air and Water Colorado, a nonprofit working to advance public policy at the intersection of climate change and public health.