Air pollution and climate change go hand in hand. The truth behind this statement may not be immediately apparent to everyone, but those of us who live and breathe in San Francisco now know it all to well. We learned the hard way. As wildfires more than 100 miles north of our city raged out of control last month– fires that were triggered by drought that was fostered by climate change – their smoke clouded our skies, filled our lungs and bathed our skin.
The Bay Area was on air quality alerts for weeks. ‘Red’ alert days, cautioning the very young, elderly and those with heart and lung disease to remain indoors. These announcements soon gave way to a few days of even more extreme, ‘purple’ alerts, when the air was simply unsafe for everyone!
Schools were closed and those who ventured out wore surgical masks – all because of air pollution because of Climate Change!
Wildfires have been a problem in California more or less forever. Our ‘Mediterranean’ climate with its long, warm summers that see no rain set the stage for an annual fire season. In the past, this season typically occupied late summer and early fall, ending when the winter rains commenced in October or November. But with our changing climate, Californian summers and falls are warmer and drier. Winter rains come later and less often. Drought years have become the new norm. With hotter temperatures and less rain, conditions are ripe for more intense and prolonged fire seasons.
The link between climate change and air pollution in California is a straight line.
In California and other parts of the Western US, the relationships – between the warmer temperatures and the drought-stressed vegetation caused by climate change, to the bigger, hotter forest fires over the past several years, to more smoke produced by these conflagrations, to more intense episodes of air pollution – is linear. But this linkage of pollution with climate change is not just a local aberration. Everywhere on our warming globe, air pollution is intimately intertwined with climate change. This is because both are the result of our reliance upon fossil fuels releasing their noxious by-products as these fuels are burned for energy. The carbon dioxide they emit is warming the atmosphere through its greenhouse effect, while the particulate matter and toxic chemicals in their ‘smoke’ pollute our air.
There is one difference between the problems of air pollution and climate change from the combustion of fossil fuels: the former is local while the latter is global. When we in the US or our neighbors in China burn coal, we contribute to the warming of the whole earth – but for the most part only those nearby are poisoned by its smoke. Pollution is largely a local phenomenon, dependent upon regional fuel sources, emissions standards, and neighborhood industries. Yet, there is this similarity – the consequences of global warming-induced climate changes are also mostly experienced locally. Flooding, wildfires, sea level rise, these effects of our changing climate are not all meted out evenly, they too vary from locale to locale. With the caveat of these regional differences in mind, nonetheless, atmospheric pollution of some sort is a near universal part of our times
Damage to our skin is probably not the first thought when we consider what’s bad about air pollution.
Air pollution can inflame our tender lungs and make us cough and wheeze, but we may not notice much happening on our skin. Similarly, water pollution may introduce nasty bugs into our weaker gastrointestinal tract and give us a whopping case of diarrhea, while our skin, even when bathed in it, may seem to remain unperturbed. Skin – that marvelous organ – though fully exposed to all manner of environmental hazards, simply carries on, doing its job – keeping the outside out and the inside in.
Skin was designed through evolution to protect us from external threats. Even though air pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels was probably not an issue for our ancestors during the era when our skin’s defenses first evolved, skin did amass a repertoire of defensive mechanisms to defuse noxious materials in its environment. These defenses are indeed admirably strong, but we are also now learning that they are not invincible. Skin aging, acne, and eczema may all be aggravated by pollution.
In the next series of posts we will take a look at pollution and how it affects our skin. To do so, we will need to consider the different types of pollution – airborne particulate matter, specific chemicals, microbes – and what we know about skin’s defenses against each of these. Because of the recent experience in California with the smoke from wild fires, we will start first with air-borne particles.