By Olivia V. Sanderfoot and Dr. Michael Ryan
Washingtonians know firsthand the value of fresh air. In September 2020, wildfire smoke blanketed Washington state, and people, livestock and wildlife were exposed to dangerous air pollution. Reports of negative health effects included coughing, wheezing, headaches, nausea and fatigue.
Unfortunately, wildfire smoke is just one source of air pollution in our state. The burning of fossil fuels is also a major source of toxic gases and airborne particles. We need to enact policies that will both immediately reduce health-damaging air pollution and limit emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, which ultimately increases the frequency and severity of wildfire smoke events. A clean fuels standard would do exactly this by curtailing air pollution from the transportation sector, thereby reducing health risks to people and wildlife.
According to the World Health Organization, outdoor air pollution leads to the deaths of 4.2 million people worldwide every year, and recent estimates suggest the death toll may be much higher. The American Lung Association ranks the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene metropolitan areas 14th on the list of most polluted cities in the nation for short-term particle pollution. Cleaning up the air we breathe would result in fewer asthma and heart attacks and lower rates of lung cancer, saving our state millions of dollars in annual avoided health care costs. People living near major roadways who are disproportionately impacted by air pollution would immediately benefit from a policy like a clean fuels standard that targets emissions from the transportation sector.
Air pollution makes animals sick, too. A clean fuels standard would improve air quality for us and the animals that inhabit the parks and beaches where we recreate. The value of these local green spaces and the opportunity to enjoy the vibrant and diverse wildlife they support may never have been more obvious than during the COVID-19 lockdowns, when so many discovered newfound joy in the birds and other wildlife in their own backyards. Studies have shown that exploring the outdoors (and birdwatching in particular) has tangible mental health benefits.
Furthermore, clean air is good for outdoor recreation, an industry that generates billions of dollars in annual economic activity in Washington state every year and supports more than 260,000 local jobs. Protecting flora and fauna from the negative impacts of air pollution is not only the right thing to do – it’s a boon to our economy.
There is no silver bullet to wholly ridding our state of harmful air pollution, but a clean fuels standard is a step in the right direction and one of the best ways to protect public health and welfare in our state. It is time for us to join our West Coast neighbors to implement a proven policy to protect our health and safeguard wildlife for future generations to enjoy.
Olivia V. Sanderfoot is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, where she studies the impact of air pollution on birds and other wildlife. Olivia does not speak on behalf of the university or any of its units. Dr. Michael Ryan is a nephrologist with over 27 years of experience in the medical field. He currently practices at Sacred Heart in Spokane.
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