As a pulmonologist, I’m disheartened during hot, polluted summer days when my patients tell me the air is making it harder for them to breathe — and even worse, when it sends someone to the hospital.
Much of the time, the dangerous pollution levels result from a combination of wildfire smoke that can travel hundreds of miles before arriving in Denver and mixing with pollution from traffic and other nearby sources.
The locally produced pollution is dominated by sources that also drive global warming; severe wildfires are a downstream consequence of these greenhouse-gas emissions. It is an escalating cycle, and we need to take steps to solve this problem before summers on the Front Range become unbearable, not just for those with lung disease, but for all of us.
Air quality across the Front Range is increasingly impacted by climate change, whether it’s hotter days with increased ozone, or smoke and particles from wildfires -– be they on the West Coast or closer to home. On Sept. 26, 2020, Denver held the dubious distinction of being the “most polluted city in the world,” and that is unlikely to be a one-time occurrence, given our warming climate.
Fires are occurring more frequently and burning more intensely across the West. Earlier this spring, experts declared that Colorado’s “wildfire season” is now, realistically, a year-round affair.
Wildfires are not our only — or primary — source of air pollution, but they are one everyone sees and breathes, and they can push our air quality into the worst category. Each fire that sends smoke and haze across the Front Range is a visible reminder of the urgent need to take steps to reduce air pollution so as to minimize climate change.
I get first-hand accounts all summer from patients with already weakened lungs about the negative impact of pollution on their health. I also do research on lung inflammation, and it is almost unbelievable how air pollution can rev up inflammatory signaling in airway cells.
As a member of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, I am therefore not surprised when we hear people from all over the Front Range tell us about the negative impact air pollution has on their health.
While climate change increases the risk of wildfires that spread particulate-matter pollution, it also enhances conditions for ozone pollution to form. On the worst days, levels of both ozone and particulates can be in the dangerous zone.
This relationship between climate, wildfires and ozone matters for those of us on the Front Range: The American Lung Association’s recently released 2021 State of the Air Report rates the Denver-Aurora metro area eighth-worst in the country for ozone.
We have an opportunity to begin to improve air quality and fight climate change, an opportunity found in President Biden’s American Jobs Plan — which makes significant investments in electric-vehicle, or EV, infrastructure. A lot of consumers are interested in EVs, but also worry about their practicality for use outside of cities. That is why EV infrastructure — think charging stations — is so important.
In addition to having positive effects on reducing pollution, the American Jobs Plan will create millions of good-paying union jobs, modernize our energy and transportation infrastructure, improve our economy, and invest in people and communities too often left behind. It is an obvious win: good jobs, cleaner energy and addressing climate change.
We cannot directly prevent pollution from wildfires arriving in the Front Range. We can, however, make a big impact on the other sources of pollution that drive poor air quality, while also reducing the emission of greenhouse gases that globally drive climate change and, in turn, promote wildfires.
Electrification of our transportation system will drastically reduce production of ozone precursors and other toxic particulates. Given the polluting events we can’t avoid, and with expected growth that will continue along the Front Range, this is a tremendous opportunity to reduce ozone and toxins.
What we put on the road is one the few ways we can directly control air pollution, and the American Jobs Plan understands that clean energy, clean transportation, and healthy communities are interconnected.
Urge Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper to continue leading on addressing climate change and cleaner air, by supporting an American Jobs Plan that includes EV and clean energy infrastructure.
Dr. Tony Gerber is a pulmonologist and a Professor of Medicine at National Jewish Health and the University of Colorado. He is chairman of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission. The views expressed here are his personal opinions.