Governor's Order Could Improve California's Air Quality and Health

May 11, 2015

While great progress has been made developing a culture of health and wellness in California, access to care is only one part of a larger array of health-impacting factors. An individual’s lived-in environment contributes significantly to their wellbeing (or lack thereof). In developing a culture of health and wellness, policymakers, citizens and providers must be cognizant of the diverse factors that impact health outside of the healthcare setting, even before illness and injury.

Air quality is a particularly relevant health factor for Californians. In addition to creating unsightly smog clouds, air pollution can cause significant short-term and long-term effects. Ground-level ozone can cause throat and lung irritation, exacerbated asthma, and long-term lung damage. Particulate matter (small dust particles and liquid droplets which can penetrate the lungs) is also threatening: in addition to causing respiratory distress, they increase the mortality risk for people with lung and cardiovascular disease. The American Lung Association ranked Los Angeles the worst county in the nation for air quality based on its high levels of ground-level ozone and particulate matter.

The health impacts of air pollution are a stark reminder that health and wellness are not addressed simply by good living habits and access to care. Health and wellness require addressing the totality of factors impacting well-being. Even if an individual receives quality care for respiratory issues, their quality of life remains degraded as long as their workplace and/or home environment is contaminated with air pollutants. Ensuring health requires that these environmental factors are also addressed.

A recent executive order issued by California Governor Jerry Brown may spur progress in this front. The order requires the State to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80% under 1990 levels by 2040. While the proposal does not directly address air pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter, it would nonetheless push for a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, which are a major contributor to air pollutants. Future proposals or legislation could go further, by mandating stringent restrictions backed by regulatory power on greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants released into the atmosphere. As pollution becomes a bigger issue, policy makers will need to pay as much attention to environmental factors that impact health as they did to healthcare reform.