Summer was supposed to smell like fresh-cut grass, salty sea breezes and hot dogs on the grill. In much of North America, however, the summer of 2023 smelled mostly like pollution.
The culprit was climate change, which made itself known across the Midwest and the Northeast with haze, smog and smoke from Canadian wildfires that strangled the summer skies and triggered air-quality warnings from Kansas to New York, and from Michigan to North Carolina.
Since its initial passage in 1963, the Clean Air Act has done much to ensure breathable air across the United States. However, there clearly is work still left to do. In fact, half the world’s population still struggles with pollution, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
The main concern is fine particulate matter — microscopic particles and condensed liquid droplets that linger in the air from fires, construction sites, unpaved roads, motor vehicles, power plants and myriad other sources of pollution. In the immediate term, fine particulate matter can cause symptoms like coughing and wheezing. In the long term, however, it can increase the risk of chronic health problems like asthma, respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer.
Increases in natural disasters from climate change, including wildfires, heat and drought, are making the problem worse, according to the American Lung Association, whose 2023 “State of the Air” report says more than one in three Americans live in places with unhealthy levels of air pollution.