The Air We Breathe: An Atlantic Summit

Read: Think Before You Breathe


Like It or Not, Your Health Is Up In the Air

Industry experts share their biggest concerns around climate, pollution, and the air we breathe.


  1. Air pollution is a public health issue
  2. Collaborative Solutions make for healthier citizens
  3. Building a clean, safe space
  4. Policy and advocacy are vital elements

For more than two centuries, our industrial ambition has been inadvertently damaging the planet. There is well-documented proof that the amount of coal and oil we burn year after year is wreaking havoc on our ecosystem–but according to a group of experts who spoke at “The Air We Breathe,” The Atlantic’s first summit on air, this pollution is not just a climate issue. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s also a public health issue.

According to a group of climatologists, public health officials, doctors, data scientists, and meteorologists, the toxins produced by our reliance on fossil fuels are polluting the air we breathe–and that, in turn, threatens even our most basic human functions. In conversations covering politics, socioeconomics, regional risks, and more, there was one common thread: Climate change and air pollution pose a substantial risk to health across the nation.

1Air Pollution is a Public Health IssueThe American Lung Association reports that more than 40 percent of Americans live in areas that are overly polluted. That’s particularly frightening, said CEO Harold Wimmer, because “the air we breathe affects every cell in our body” and can seriously affect our health. Pollution is linked to a number of chronic and potentially deadly illnesses, including asthma, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the third leading cause of death in the United States.

“Anywhere between 25,000 and 40,000 people die each year from air pollution,” added Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. That’s approximately the same as the annual number of fatalities related to car accidents and handguns.

Effective legislation can limit these unnecessary deaths. The Clean Air Act, for example, regulates where and when people can smoke cigarettes, aircraft emission standards, and more, and it’s already saving an estimated 160,000 lives per year. Saving more lives will come down to enforcing and expanding these

Conversation one cont.

bills–but doing so will be a greater challenge now than ever before. The current administration has already moved to defund government-sponsored programs designed to limit or reverse climate change.

“If we start cutting back those regulations, what type of impact is that going to have?” Wimmer asked. “It's going to increase asthma attacks. We're looking that the Clean Air Act now is responsible for reducing almost two million asthma attacks each year.”

To improve our air quality and mitigate the harmful impacts of air pollution, he concluded, we need to make sure that climate change remains part of our conversation about public health. We need to make sure that climate change remains part of our conversation about public health.

Conversation two

2Collaborative solutions make for healthier citizensPolicy and partnerships are equally important at the local and regional levels, too, and American cities are beginning to show their commitment to improving public health by relying on cleaner, more sustainable energy. The city of Chicago, for instance, recently shuttered the last of its coal-fired power plants, and the Chicago Department of Buildings works with local building owners to implement energy-efficient technologies. “We're [working] to improve energy efficiency in this city, which ultimately improves health,” said Julie Morita, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Decades ago, state and often city governments controlled the policies in their jurisdictions. If a state chose to fund coal-burning plants that polluted the air of states downwind, there was little the downwind state could do. As federal regulations and oversight have replaced individual state oversight, several states have partnered to clean up their shared ecological territories, including airspaces and large bodies of water. Still, the issue persists.

Conversation two cont.

“There are so many states that are doing everything they can, and they'll [still] get an ‘F’ from the American Lung Association because of unhealthy air,” Becker explained. “The problem may not be caused by their actions. It may be caused hundreds of kilometers upwind.”

If control of environmental policies is handed back to individual states, as the current administration has suggested, it could do more harm than good. “We need more of a regional and national approach [to clean air policy,] and we do not want states having to fight amongst themselves,” Becker said. “It didn't work in the sixties and it doesn't work today.”“We need more of a regional and national approach [to clean air policy]”— Bill Becker

Conversation three

3Building a clean, safe spaceWhile the majority of attention is paid to outdoor air quality, the majority of our time is spent indoors. One of the best ways to protect ourselves from air pollution is to maintain a clean, safe indoor space.

“We spend 90 percent of our time indoors,” said Joe Allen, Director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment. “Outdoor air pollution penetrates indoors. And because of how much time we spend inside, it turns out that your daily dose [of pollutants], the amount you inhale and your body absorbs, can actually be greater [inside], even for outdoor air pollutants.” Allen and his colleagues have gone so far as to determine the impacts that pollution has on the body: They conducted a test that found associations between indoor pollution and impaired cognitive function.

Though it may sound counterintuitive, a good way to alleviate this type of exposure, Allen said, is to make sure buildings are well-ventilated. Improved ventilation can allow for better air circulation in our indoor environments,

Conversation three cont.

circulation in our indoor environments, which lowers our exposure to any individual pollutant. And there are ways to do this in an energy-efficient manner, according to Allen—a well-ventilated building doesn’t necessarily have to be an energy hog. The key is in searching for sustainable solutions.

“I think it's a false choice we've been presented with for a long time, that it's energy or health,” Allen said. “In fact, we have to have both with energy-efficient technologies.”“I think it’s a false choice we’ve been presented with for a long time, that it’s energy or health.”— Joe Allen

Conversation four

4Policy and advocacy are vital elementsIn April 2017, a U.S. Steel plant in Indiana dumped wastewater containing hexavalent chromium into Lake Michigan, which trails down to Chicago’s shores. The Chicago Department of Public Health relied on the help of larger agencies, including the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National EPA, to fix the issue. This type of collaboration is critical to mitigating public health risks, and yet the institutions that make these collaborations possible, including the EPA, are at risk of being defunded. “We are taking a strong position on [pollution], but we can't do this alone,” said commissioner Julie Morita. “And we will be much more successful if we have [the EPA] beside us.”

Without federal and state funding, Morita said, the kinds of efforts that have been made in Chicago—such as cleaning hexavalent chromium out of Lake Michigan and closing down coal-fired power plants—would more likely be pipe dreams than reality. In order to effectively protect local ecosystems, public health programs need help from higher places.

Conversation four cont.

And it’s not just a matter of what the government does–private citizens must buy in, too. Joel Alfrick, the President and CEO of the Respiratory Health Association, said that “common advocacy” plays a huge part in the success of an initiative. Writing letters, making phone calls to local representatives, and making your voice heard, he said, are the best ways to spread the word about what matters to you, and get broader support when it comes to cleaning up the air we breathe.Making your voice heard is the best ways to spread the word about what matters to you, and get broader support when it comes to cleaning up the air we breathe.

Most of the time, you’re not aware of it—it’s odorless, tasteless, and you can’t feel it floating around. But you’re constantly surrounded by particulate matter in indoor spaces.

Multiply your age by 0.9. That’s how much of your life you’ve spent indoors.

If you’re the average American, you’re 38 years old, which means you’ve spent 34.2 years in there, sharing space with everything from upholstery and carpets to books, pets, pillows, covers, and throws, all of them full of …well, the common term is shmutz.

It’s the pine dust from Christmas past, the window-sill soot, the germy crud that came in on your shoe and stuck to the carpet, where the dog licked it up and then licked your hand as you grabbed the remote and its traces ancient of take-out. It’s also 34 years in a place where every breath takes in fumes and pollutants that you may never have thought twice about: the chemical residue of room deodorants and toiletries and disinfectant wipes and household cleaners, the air-borne remnants of scented candles and all things aerosol.

Clean air? What does that even mean?

Article continues below ⤵︎

You've spent 90% of your life inside. What have you been breathing in that whole time?

Enter your age to find out

Every breath you take...

We've told you about the average American, but how long have you been indoors? What harmful chemicals might you have been exposed to in your lifetime? Use the calculator below to find out.

Enter Your Age

Enter a number between 1 and 120.

Years Indoors


In that time, you've likely been exposed to:

You've spent 90% of your life inside. What have you been breathing in that whole time?

Enter your age to find out

In most conversations about pollution, it means the air outdoors—the exhaust from cars, buses, and trucks, the contaminant smog that comes wheezing out of smokestacks and factories. It’s bad, but the big picture misses what’s right in front of our noses, where we take it all in.

Indoor air pollution is “an area that's relatively unexplored compared to other fields in public health,” says Dr. Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Despite the fact that indoor air is sometimes more polluted than outdoor air, “we haven’t dedicated comparable resources to it,” Allen says.

Globally, more than four million people die prematurely as a result of indoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. Though those statistics primarily represent mortality rates in developing countries, indoor air quality is still a major issue in countries like the United States. Data that focus specifically on the effects of indoor air pollution in highly developed countries suggest that it can lead to certain types of cancer, liver and kidney disease, and emphysema, though there’s some uncertainty about how much exposure is required to lead to those kinds of health problems. And exposure to indoor pollutants are particularly toxic to children, the elderly, and those with preexisting conditions.

Like It or Not, Your Health Is Up In the Air

“The Air We Breathe,” The Atlantic’s first clean air summit, brought experts together to discuss the importance of, and challanges to, cleaning up our air.

Read the event coverage →

The issue of indoor air pollution was all but unspoken until the energy crisis of the 1970s, when buildings were sealed with insulation to save money by conserving heat and air conditioning. In doing so, they reduced most indoor-outdoor circulation. That’s when the so-called Sick Building Syndrome began, with tenant complaints about feeling sick and uncomfortable became increasingly common. The symptoms were typically just nuisances—headaches, nausea, fatigue, skin irritation—that would suddenly vanish when they left the building, as if by some miracle.

Article continues below ⤵︎

Healthy Buildings, Healthy Bodies


It wasn’t a miracle, of course. It was just escaping the pollutants inside, including volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. VOCs are particularly harmful in an indoor space because they easily evaporate into gas; Formaldehyde, for instance, boils at temperatures of -2 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, meaning it will sublimate in any indoor environment that isn’t a deep freezer. These VOCs are everywhere, in some of the most common materials and products of home and office—there is benzene in art supplies, formaldehyde comes in paint, detergents, particleboard, linoleum, even permanent-press clothes. Second-hand smoke carries toluene, and perchloroethylene comes in fabric-, wood- and shoe-cleaning products.

These four VOCs are carcinogenic, with the potential to “cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system,” according to the National Institutes of Health. Certain flame-retardant chemicals, commonly found in household furniture, can interfere with male fertility and thyroid hormones, says Allen. And on a day-to-day basis, harmful chemicals that are often found indoors can lead to breathing troubles, bodily aches and pains, skin rash, throat irritation, and, in some instances, fainting spells.

Article continues below ⤵︎

To learn more about how Dyson air purifiers could improve the air quality in your home, visit

Increased awareness of indoor air pollution has already prompted new thinking by some of the people who plan, monitor, and build buildings, who are the main targets of research by Dr. Allen and others.

Like It or Not, Your Health Is Up In the Air

“The Air We Breathe,” The Atlantic’s first clean air summit, brought experts together to discuss the importance of, and challanges to, cleaning up our air.

Read the event coverage →

“We don't really think of designers and architects as being part of the healthcare profession, when in fact they are,” Allen says. “These people have an outsized impact on your health.”

Allen recommends that facilities managers take small proactive measures to monitor and improve indoor air quality—conducting annual air-quality tests, for example—to protect the long-term health of their tenants.

But everyone can help improve the air we breathe, he says—especially by looking for products without toxic chemicals, keeping up regular, rigorous cleaning routines, washing our hands, taking our shoes off at the door, and making sure to monitor and purify indoor air as diligently as possible.

“[We must] understand that the indoor environment influences your health. When people start thinking about where we spend our time and all that's around us, I think things will start to change.”