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Crop rows growing in Carson Valley, Nevada with mountains in distance. Photo via iStock.com

The heat wave we are experiencing here in Nevada is not just uncomfortable; it’s also part of a dangerous trend that we often overlook in our day-to-day lives. Scientific studies have confirmed the Earth’s climate is changing. Many observable changes are a result of the increased greenhouse gases emitted from human activities. Extreme weather events such as heatwaves are likely to become more frequent or more intense. The increased drought in the southwestern United States is placing our communities at higher risk for wildfires. But what do heat waves and wildfires have to do with health? The answer — it exacerbates pollution in the air we breathe.  

There are many impacts of climate change on our health. One example is when you mix vehicle exhaust with extreme heat, the result is higher ozone pollution. Ozone high up in the atmosphere is helpful because it protects life on Earth from the sun’s rays, but when ozone is created and remains at the surface of our planet it is dangerous to health. When we breathe in ozone pollution, the lining of our lungs becomes irritated and inflamed, much like a sunburn on the skin. We are all affected by ozone. Those most vulnerable to these harmful effects of ozone are children with developing lungs, the elderly with limited lung capacity, pregnant women, and those of us with existing lung diseases. Ozone is a known trigger for breathing problems for persons with asthma and other respiratory limitations.  

The American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report for Nevada revealed that air pollution has crept up in recent years of the report. The report ranks the Las Vegas-Henderson metro area as the 9th most polluted in the country for ozone and the 25th most polluted for particulate matter. This doesn’t mean we haven’t made important progress here; it just means that we have to double down as climate change ramps up the challenge. 

As a nurse by profession, I see how many patients suffer when air pollution worsens. I see young children with asthma begin to cough and wheeze on hazy hot days, outdoor workers who must work and breathe smoke from a wildfire, and seniors with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who cannot take their daily walks because of poor air quality. Sadly, for some patients, they must go to the clinic or emergency department for a breathing treatment. For all of us, we are forced to limit our usual outdoor activities because of air pollution. So, is there an opportunity to help make things better? Yes. 

Last year, our state released a greenhouse gas emissions inventory. The results showed that the transportation sector was at the top of the list and was expected to stay there for decades to come. The cars and trucks on our roads were responsible for three-quarters of the climate pollution from this sector, which jumped past energy generation as dirtier plants were closed and more renewables came online. That inventory report also pointed out a need for cleaner cars on the road, and for more healthy alternatives to driving that would reduce our dependence on cars.  

Fortunately, Nevada is pursuing solutions for a healthier future. Earlier this summer, Governor Sisolak announced that Nevada would be launching an effort to adopt stronger passenger vehicle standards. Following the actions of a growing number of states, efforts would include bringing more zero-emission vehicle options to Nevada. These new vehicle standards are part of a broader effort towards getting Nevada to "zero or near-zero" greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a goal set by our Governor and Legislature and advanced by the Nevada Climate Initiative, which recently launched the process to develop the state's first-ever climate strategy. These actions are in line with what scientists and the health care community say are needed to address the public health emergency that is climate change. 

Health care professionals have an ethical responsibility to advocate for a healthy environment — that includes having clean air to breathe. That’s why the Nevada State Nurses Association is supporting the Clean Cars Nevada Initiative. For over 90 years, the Nevada Nurses' Association has been promoting professional nursing practices and legislative activities to advocate for improved health and high-quality health care for citizens of Nevada. 

Nevadans have a real opportunity to make a difference in our personal and family’s health, as well as the health of our communities. We need our state representatives to support the Clean Car Standard and other policies that limit air pollution and combat human causes of climate change. Accelerating the widespread transition to zero-emission transportation, powered by local clean energy, is critical to protecting the health of Nevadans today and for our future generations. 

Bernadette M. Longo, Ph.D., RN, APHN-BC, CNL, FAAN, is the chair of the Nevada Nurses Association Environmental Health Committee, and an American Lung Association Health Professional for Clean Air and Climate Action.

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