As a health professional living, working and raising my family in the valley, I care deeply about how our environment impacts our health. I am particularly interested in how air quality affects my patients with lung conditions. In order to improve our patients’ lung health, we must also address the health of the environments where they live, work and play.

The latest American Lung Association State of the Air report noted that Bakersfield is rated No. 1 in The United States for unhealthy days of particle pollution, No. 2 for annual particle levels and No. 3 in the U.S. for ozone, or summertime smog.

The tally? We have over a month of days when particle pollution is unhealthy, year-round levels of unhealthy particle pollution and over three months of unhealthy ozone days. That is the worst possible news for the estimated 50,000 adults and 16,000 children with asthma in Kern County.

Poor air quality directly impacts my patients who have asthma and allergies and as we enter into the summer vacation driving season, I fear spikes in ozone pollution will cause even more harm. Similarly, we know that these hot, dry conditions drive the catastrophic wildfires that increasingly threaten lives, homes and public health for miles under blankets of toxic particles.

In fact, the Lung Association’s report covered data from 2015 to 2017 (the three hottest years on record) and found widespread increases in ozone pollution across the U.S. as a result. The same three years also saw seven of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California history and increases in particle pollution across the Western US.

As a nurse practitioner with over 20 years of experience taking care of patients with lung illnesses, I am acutely aware of the challenges our patients face on days when air quality is poor. As our climate changes, the extremes that drive health impacts become more visible – from droughts, wildfires and longer and worsening allergy seasons. As these threats to our health become more and more alarming, the need for clean air and a healthier environment becomes increasingly urgent. 

That’s why on June 27, I’ll be joining fellow nurses from all across California at a workshop in Bakersfield to learn more about environmental impacts on public health and offer my own presentation of the growing risks to lung health as climate change impacts grow.

There is ample evidence to share. In 2018, we saw the release of many state, federal and international scientific and public health reviews of climate change all pointing to the fact that we have to address the climate crisis as a health emergency.

California’s Fourth Climate Assessment includes a forthcoming San Joaquin Valley overview that notes “public health in the San Joaquin Valley will be exacerbated by many negative impacts from climate change.” What this means for our communities is increases in the spread of diseases and growing threats to our air and water. 

The good news is that the solutions are right in front of us. In California, it’s vital that we cut pollution from the transportation sector as quickly as possible. The cars and trucks on our roads are the source of the vast majority of harmful air and climate pollution impacting my patients today.

We must also make our neighborhoods healthier by designing them to reduce the need to drive. There are enormous health benefits to creating communities where people can easily and safely walk, bike and have good access to public transportation. We need transportation options that pollute less and offer residents of all ages, incomes and abilities opportunities to experience Bakersfield without having to rely on a car. 

The future health of our community depends on us. What’s exciting is that if we really focus on giving people alternatives to driving we can cut carbon pollution and at the same time make every community safer, healthier, and more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

With cleaner air, my patients with asthma and allergies will breathe easier. That’s a future we can all strive for.

Heidi He is a Nurse Practitioner with more than twenty years of experience; she sees patients at the Comprehensive Pulmonary and Critical Care in Bakersfield and is an Assistant Professor and director of the Graduate Nursing Program at CSU Bakersfield.