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On a basic level, humans need four things to survive: food, water, shelter and air. Three of these have already been commodified, leaving only air untouched. Human beings take an average of 22,000 breaths per day. Whether someone is exercising, sick or breathing polluted air, breathing is something that isn’t noticed until it’s difficult to do. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the West Coast wildfires and an increase in global pollution, clean air is becoming more and more of a luxury. Air cannot become commercialized like food, shelter and water already have; this would put the lives of millions of people in danger. 

COVID-19 has taught us many things about the way our society functions, but one major takeaway is that even basic tasks like breathing can become disrupted by unexpected phenomena. As elementary, middle and high schools move to reopen, they have faced the question of how to fit hundreds of students into hot, poorly ventilated classrooms. 

At first glance, schools should be hotbeds for viral spread. Infections are 18.7 times more likely to occur indoors, where virus particles remain in the air for up to three hours. However, schools have invested heavily in high-efficiency particulate air filters that work to prevent molecules from being transported by air. While these are not perfect, they have done a solid job in classrooms that have invested properly in the air filtration systems. 

But what happens when a school district cannot afford the ventilation systems that satisfy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines? A federal watchdog service found that 41% of grade schools needed to update or completely overhaul their air filtration systems prior to COVID-19. These schools often faced tight budgets and had to opt for the cheapest filtration systems. New York City’s public schools have bought over 30,000 new air filtration systems since the pandemic started, but teachers, concerned they will not be enough to ensure students’ safety, crowdfunded an additional $159,000 to purchase more. Schools in poorer neighborhoods need to upgrade their current systems just to reach the pre-pandemic filtration level of those in schools in rich neighborhoods. 

Unfortunately, this problem extends beyond classrooms. Due to cheap construction materials and techniques, the air in our homes can be up to five times dirtier than outdoors. As people are spending more time indoors because of the pandemic, they are spending more time breathing dirty — albeit, COVID-19 free — air. Dozens of health issues have been linked to unclean indoor air, such as asthma, allergies, depression and sleep apnea. 

Yet, outdoor air can be just as dangerous. Data from the World Health Organization shows that nine in every 10 people globally breathe air that exceeds WHO standards for pollutant levels. That same data found that seven million people die every year from air pollution, and air pollution is responsible for roughly one out of every eight deaths worldwide. The United Nations estimates that air pollution costs all nations combined around $5 trillion every year in prevention and mitigation efforts. In the United States, the Clean Air Act has helped lower lead air pollution by 92% since 1980, but globally, half of all people are experiencing worsening air quality. 

Last fall, California, Oregon and Washington experienced unprecedented wildfires. The fires were not only unprecedented in their severity, but also in their effect on the nation’s air quality. As a result of the fires, one in seven Americans experienced dangerous levels of pollutants in their air. The fires impacted air quality in nearby areas such as Portland, Ore., which had the world’s worst air quality, but their impact was also felt across the world, including in Europe. As climate change increases the frequency of forest fires, they will only continue to harm global air quality. 

Urban centers generally have the worst air quality, and as more people continue to move to cities around the world, they give us a good place to start improving air quality. One basic step that cities can take is creating more green spaces. Whether by planting trees, creating roof gardens or expanding public parks, creating these green spaces reduces air pollution and provides residents with cleaner, cooler air, along with many other health benefits. 

Another major step that can be taken is transitioning toward electric buses and trains and encouraging biking and walking through safer trails and sidewalks. Motor vehicles in Philadelphia contribute to about 60% of the city’s total air pollution, demonstrating how switching to green transportation could significantly lower emissions.

Like all aspects of climate change, air quality issues harm vulnerable populations the most and compound existing inequities. Solutions must take this into account or risk worsening inequalities. Air quality isn’t about preserving the planet or environment for generations to come. Rather, it is about improving public health right now and averting preventable diseases, health problems and premature deaths. 

Alex Nobel can be reached at