Wildfire smoke is blanketing some cities in the US

I was born with asthma, a lung condition that causes breathing difficulties. A year ago, I moved to New York City, where more than 3,000 people die every year because of air pollution. I was terrified that an asthma attack would land me in hospital. This week, those fears were reignited: smoke from wildfires in Canada has engulfed the US northeast, and New York City became the most polluted metropolis in the world.

Pollutants in the air can enter our lungs and blood system, which increases our risk of heart disease, respiratory diseases, and lung cancer. Globally, air pollution from burning fossil fuels is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths, and more than 4 million people die every year due to diseases related to outdoor air pollution.

While clean air is arguably one of the most important elements of the right to a healthy environment, air pollution continues to affect most people on the planet — particularly society’s most vulnerable groups, such as women, children, elderly people, people living in poverty, and those with pre-existing health conditions.

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My work as a clean air activist began in 2018. I stood in front of one the most crowded public transport stations in Bogotá, Colombia, alongside a pair of giant cotton lungs I had installed on the street. I stood there for half a day and saw how the cotton lungs became darker and darker. Thousands of people driving past on buses also saw it. That was the beginning of my journey trying to engage citizens across Colombia and Latin America to mobilize for clean air and demand more and better public policies.

Air pollution: One of the most deadly health risks

Air pollution: One of the most deadly health risks Image: Our World in Data

The truth is, the climate crisis is a public health crisis. That’s because many of the human activities that produce long-lasting greenhouse gasses simultaneously emit other air pollutants, including short-lived climate pollutants, which directly affect air quality. What we see in New York City and all over the East Coast is a perfect example.

So what can we do? The answer is clear: We have to transition away from our reliance on fossil fuels. Meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement could save around 1 million lives per year by 2050, just by reducing air pollution.

We need a new global narrative around clean air. We need a narrative that allows us to publicly attribute cause, blame and responsibility for air pollution. After all, research has yielded compelling evidence of a correlation between the escalating impact of climate change, characterized by hotter, drier and more unpredictable weather patterns, and the heightened intensity of wildfires. While more research still needs to be done, what we are seeing is more volatile and extreme climate hazards. If fossil fuels are even in part responsible for this pollution crisis, we must act to phase them out.

Air pollution is a reminder of how things out of your control can still dramatically shape your reality. Today, I have to take an inhaler with me wherever I go. If we don’t act soon, that might be the future for every child in New York City and beyond.

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