Combating Climate Change and Respiratory Disease One Step at a Time

Combating Climate Change and Respiratory Disease One Step at a Time

By | March 11, 2020

Over the weekend, I did something out of the ordinary—not extraordinary by any means—but something I never thought I’d even attempt: climbing 94 flights of stairs at the 875 North Michigan Avenue building (formerly known as the John Hancock Center) as part of the annual Hustle Chicago event.

The fundraiser is for the Respiratory Health Association, a Chicago-based not-for-profit organization that traces its roots back to 1906.

Even though I’d been training for it a while and got to the point where I could climb 120 to 140 floors on a stair machine, the ascent up the stairwell in the 19th-tallest building in the world was still really tough. I finished the climb in 22 minutes and 29 seconds, which was quicker than I had anticipated, but still only 1,004th place overall out of 2,515 climbers. Speed was not my priority—finishing was—but the best time if you’re curious was 10 minutes and 19 seconds. A “wow” or an “oh wow” or an “oh wow, how?” are all legitimate responses to hearing that.

This photo was taken shortly after I completed the Hustle Chicago stair climb. Yep, I’m relieved.

As an asthmatic, I admit that breathing the air in the stairwell while clip-clopping my way up 1,632 stairs was challenging. I passed quite a few people who had to stop to catch their breath along the way. By the time I reached the halfway point, my breathing became a little more labored as well, but still I pressed on. After I crossed the finish line, I had to take a couple of puffs from my rescue inhaler. Even then, it still took me a while to get my breathing back to normal.

In the prologue to this event that was geared toward respiratory health, it got me thinking about something outside the box or outside the stairwell as the case may be: climate change. I spend a lot of time pondering the litter on the ground as part of the Sphera Litter Challenge, but not as much about the “litter” in the air if you will, which is, in many ways, even more disconcerting.

The 2019 “State of Global Air” report from the Health Effects Institute found that air pollution is the fifth-leading cause of mortality worldwide. You heard that right. Air pollution leads to 5 million deaths annually, according to the report, and, as of 2017, it had caused a reduced worldwide life expectancy of one year and eight months on average.

Excuse me while I cough.

With climate change comes an even greater challenge to lung health. As the American Lung Association explains on its website: “Climate change increases the risk that air pollution, including ozone and particle pollution, will worsen.”

That’s just the beginning.

As the air quality worsens, so will allergens in the air, and in regions where wildfires are prevalent, the microscopic particles that float through the air with the greatest of ease could cause everything from coughing to asthma flare-ups to even heart attacks, the association reports. 2019 was a “down year” for wildfires in the United States, statistically speaking, with 50,477 fires burning 4.6 million acres compared with 58,083 fires burning 8.8 million acres the year before, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Australia, on the other hand, which actually is about the same size as the United States, has recently seen wildfires burn about 25 million acres. These fires have not only profoundly affected the Australian people but the animal populations that live there as well. Australia recently had its hottest day on record with a national average of 40.9°C (105.6°F).

As the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) explains, “high temperatures also reduce air quality by creating more smog, pollen and other airborne allergens—all of which can trigger asthma, which afflicts 235 million people around the world.”

Extreme heat also leads to more wildfires.

The Respiratory Health Association adds that wildfire smoke is “worse for respiratory health than typical air particle matters; it can affect breathing conditions for hundreds of miles and can increase respiratory hospital admissions.”

But it’s not just outdoor air quality that’s worrisome—it’s indoor as well. As the U.S. Occupational and Health Administration reports, “Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) has been tied to symptoms like headaches, fatigue, trouble concentrating and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.” Ventilation, temperature, humidity and recent remodels are among the factors that can affect air quality. There is some good news though: A joint Harvard University-Syracuse University report from 2015 found that people who worked in “green,” sustainable offices had “significantly improved cognitive function scores when working in Green and Green+ environments compared with scores obtained when working in a Conventional environment.”

When someone says: “That’s using your head,” perhaps they should add “the air quality must be good.”

For businesses, sustainability is more important than ever. No organization wants to wind up on the 10 o’clock news for any internal or external air pollution issues or any other environmental hazard for that matter, but what some organizations don’t realize is that sustainability is not only good for the world in general but also the business itself as well.

As Sphera’s Thomas Motzer wrote in a recent blog, greenhouse gas “reduction targets help you to keep track of your way to improve your climate performance. Where are the climate hot spots in my company and what are the low-hanging fruits regarding emissions reduction? How do I define a realistic but challenging reduction target, and how can I keep on track?”

Dealing with air quality issues caused by climate change or otherwise might be a steep hill to climb, but in this case, as with any rewarding endeavor, you can achieve your goals for your organization by taking one step at a time.

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