Friday, May 12, 2017

Climate change is in Atlanta's air

"We're all partly responsible for our local air quality," says Emory graduating senior Emily Li. "Even if we don't hold ourselves accountable, our health will." (Emory Photo/Video)

By Carol Clark

Emory 2017 graduate Emily Li is leaving Atlanta this summer, but her student research will continue to have a presence here. For her undergraduate thesis, Li investigated the effects of shifting weather patterns on the air quality of Atlanta and the region — and how that relates to human health. She’s compiled her findings into a web site, Climate Change is in the Air, as a resource for local residents. 

“The web site explains some of the science involved, but it’s not just statistics,” Li says. “It also tells stories of real people. I wanted to put faces on these complex, scientific processes and explain how individuals are being directly affected by climate change, right now.”

In addition to science and stories from real people, the site offers solutions — what communities and individuals can do to address the issue.

Li, who majored in Environmental Sciences and English, sampled classes from a range of disciplines during college. No matter what the course, however, climate change kept coming up. “I think that it’s the most important issue that we face today, and I want to be part of the solution,” she says.

As a junior, Li took a course called Environmental Journalism, taught by Sheila Tefft, and realized that she could combine her two passions: Science and communication.

The web site focuses on how climate change is connected to Atlanta’s air quality, and how air quality is connected to the health of everyone living here. “Everybody has to breathe the air,” Li says. “We each need about 50 pounds of air a day and we can only go without it for about five minutes. Air is what we use the most and need the most to survive.”

The air pollutants that are contributing to a warming climate also contribute to problems of human health across the body — from the functions of lung and bronchial airways to cardiovascular diseases and central nervous system disorders. For the web site, Li concentrated on the respiratory health impacts of aeroallergens, wildfire emissions and ground-level ozone.

In lush Atlanta, a city famous for its “pollen explosions,” a warming climate may mean a longer exposure to pollen from many plants. Li tells the story of a fellow Emory student with a range of plant allergies to show the impact that high pollen counts can have on an individual’s life. “It’s hard to enjoy a nice spring day when you have to take a nap afterwards just for breathing the air,” she writes.

Hot, dry conditions also contribute to wildfires in Georgia, including an ongoing blaze in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Hundreds of firefighters are currently battling the fire as it threatens to spread beyond the swamp to nearby communities.

To personalize the impact of the wildfire emissions, Li interviewed a firefighter from north Georgia. She described his experience of a minor smoke inhalation episode: “The condition is first initiated by a deep-set exhaustion: He’s already usually hot, sweaty and tired out from the firefighting work. Overwhelmed, his respiratory system begins to let down its defenses. Then he starts to get a tightness in his chest, like his upper body is being squeezed by an invisible fist. It becomes hard for him to fully catch his breath, and he can feel a distinct obstruction in his windpipe with every attempt to suck air into his lungs. At the same time, his energy levels plummet dangerously.”

The firefighter explained to Li: “With wildfire, typically there’s a lot of walking that has to happen and a lot of strenuous activity getting to remote areas. It’s just not possible or feasible to carry air packs or self-contained breathing apparatus into the wilderness or remote areas and sustain that air supply.”

The topic of ground-level ozone is also covered on the web site, although the personal story for that section remains under construction.

Li is leaving Atlanta to pursue a masters degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania, but she plans to keep adding to the site — and perhaps expand it to encompass other cities across the country.

“My goal is to create an immersive experience that people can not just learn from, but connect to,” Li says. “I want to bridge the emotional distance between people and the science of climate change.” 

The solutions offered on the site are a critical part of that goal, she adds. “One of my main suggestions is to just stay informed and aware and spread that awareness any way that you can,” Li says. “The more people that understand the problem, the better.”

Atlanta residents also have a chance to make a difference as the Atlanta Regional Commission works on a Regional Transportation Plan aimed at meeting Clean Air Act requirements. “Anyone can join the conversation to help make the plan a reality,” Li says.

Researching the potential impacts of climate change was overwhelming at times but ultimately rewarding, Li says. “Working on this project has made me much more deliberate in my actions. It’s also made me aware of not only how I can contribute to solutions to climate change, but how I can help other people stay hopeful and helpful so they can take action as well.”

How will the shifting political winds affect U.S. climate policy?

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