Let’s Take a Breather: The Importance of Air Quality for Health, the Economy, and the Environment

U.S. former First Lady and environmentalist Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson once said, “The environment is where we all meet; where we all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share.”  From April 29 to May 3, we mark the importance of our shared environment by celebrating Air Quality Awareness Week.  This is an occasion to discuss the importance of air quality and the harmful impacts of air pollution on human health, the economy, and the environment.

This year’s theme is “Check the Air Quality Index (AQI) and Get Outside.”  The AQI is a chart developed in the United States that classifies air quality according to five categories: good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, and hazardous.  The AQI helps us understand the best time of day to be active outside or when to reduce or avoid outdoor activity.  The U.S. Department of State has installed air quality monitors at 34 U.S. embassies and consulates across the globe and by fall 2019, the number of monitors at these facilities will exceed 50.  Here in Tashkent, we installed an air quality monitor in May 2018.  The monitor checks the air every hour, and we share all of the air quality data in real-time on the www.AirNow.gov website.

Keeping an eye on the AQI can help us to protect our health.  People who are exposed to higher levels of air pollutants have an increased risk of suffering from serious health effects such as heart or vascular disease and potential damage to their immune, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems.  According to the 2016 Global Burden of Disease study, indoor and outdoor air pollution together account for 6.9 million deaths annually, or about 10% of global deaths.  Globally, on average, particulate air pollution shortens life expectancy by nearly two years.  According to the World Health Organization, Uzbekistan has the third-highest death rate connected to outdoor air pollution in the world.

The air quality in Tashkent is better than that in some neighboring countries and for approximately six months of the year, especially in spring and early summer, it ranges from the “good” to  “moderate” categories, meaning it poses little or no risk to people.  During the winter months, though, especially November and December, the air quality can be in the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” and “unhealthy” range.  This means we should all consider the potential consequences of our outdoor activities, especially vigorous exercise, during this time.  Air quality can vary depending upon the time of day, with it tending to be worst in the early morning hours.  Air quality in Tashkent depends on a number of factors, but traffic, industry, energy generation, and home heating all play a role in the level of air pollution we see each day.  Understanding these causes can help us to identify ways of addressing this problem.

Air quality can also affect other areas of our lives.  Air pollution has detrimental impacts on animals, crops, plants, and buildings.  For example, it can stunt plant growth and reduce agricultural productivity.  Studies suggest air pollution reduced global crop production by $11-18 billion annually in 2000; this figure is expected to increase to $17-35 billion by 2030.  Agriculture employs 34 percent of the population in Uzbekistan and accounts for approximately 17 percent of GDP, so it is especially important here to consider air quality and its impacts in this field.

Learning about air quality helps us understand this vital resource we all share.  On this last day of Air Quality Awareness Week, I encourage us all to reflect on the ways air quality impacts our lives and the actions we can take to safeguard our health, economy, and environment in the future.