Clean Air ❤️ Climate Action

Shelby Yamamoto explains why climate action and efforts to tackle air pollution make the perfect pair.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, newspaper headlines heralded smog-free skies in the world’s biggest cities. With fewer people travelling by car and airplane and factories shut down, air pollution decreased. Though brief, it served to show what our communities could look like with changes to our behaviours and policies absent a global pandemic.

Shelby Yamamoto is a professor in the School of Public Health, an affiliate of the Sustainability Council, and an environmental epidemiologist whose work largely focuses on the effects of air pollution and climate change on populations around the world.

“Air pollution is, unfortunately, one of those entities that you really can’t get away from. When we’re outside, we all have to breathe,” said Yamamoto.

Consider who is at risk from air pollution

Most of us might not need to worry about exposure to poor air quality on a day-to-day basis. It might only be something we think about on days when the air is filled with forest fire smoke.

But air quality can have long-term effects on our bodies and it can have serious consequences. Those particularly at risk include seniors with pre-existing health conditions and children whose immune systems are still developing, as well as the 1 in 10 Canadians living with asthma.

Air pollution has been linked to various detrimental health effects including cardiovascular issues, cancers and respiratory conditions. It’s even been linked to adverse birth outcomes, such as preterm birth and lower birth weights.

“There are a lot of different health outcomes that can be tied to exposure to air pollution, so this is why we’re really concerned about it,” said Yamamoto.

The climate connection

Increased consumption of oil and coal (through industrial activity, energy production and transportation) is the main reason for increasingly poor air quality conditions across the globe. But extreme weather events such as forest fires linked to climate change, are also at play.

“On the air pollution side, we tend to focus on particulate matter, ozone and sulfur dioxide in the air,” said Yamamoto. “On the climate change side, it’s the greenhouse gases that we’re worried about. But when you think about it, they stem from a lot of the same sources.”

Beyond having similar sources, climate change and air pollution have tightly linked environmental dynamics. For example, during a heat event, changes in atmospheric chemistry can cause poorer air quality. Climate change is also expected to cause more forest fires, which results in increased particulate matter in the air.

While Yamamoto hopes that national policies for minimizing carbon emissions, such as carbon pricing, may help with harmful air pollutants, she also highlights the importance of community-driven solutions.

“We’re going to need grassroots movements to take the reins in terms of adaptation measures,” said Yamamoto. “Community perspectives are important because… these solutions have to work for their communities, they have to work for their situation.”

Contributing to public health around the world

Yamamoto’s work, as for many others, has shifted with the pandemic. She is a part of a team working in China looking to introduce an internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy program for perinatal and antenatal women to screen for mental health issues including depression and to offer tools and resources for self-treatment.

“We knew when the pandemic hit, this was going to affect our project. And so we built another project around it to explore some of the potential impacts this pandemic could be having on pregnant women’s mental health.”

Yamamoto values the opportunity she normally has to travel around the world, working with communities to research pressing public health issues.

“Doing this kind of work in other parts of the world is contributing to the larger body of evidence and hopefully, moving the needle when it comes to dealing with issues regarding climate change, and air pollution and health,” said Yamamoto.

Shelby Yamamoto is an assistant professor in the School of Public Health and an affiliate of the Sustainability Council.