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Clearing the air: how Americans are responding to air quality shifts

74% of Americans are not at all aware of any government or community initiatives addressing air quality as lingering attention and anxiety persist across the nation.

Recent headlines have been dominated by the daunting implications of deteriorating air quality and rampant air pollution. The aftermath of multiple forest fires and natural disasters has exacerbated the situation, filling our skies with hazardous particles and leaving individuals uneasy. Over half (61%) of Americans are concerned about air quality. Not to mention the lingering distress surrounding activities that emit nitrogen oxides – burning of oil, coal, and natural gases. Concern is significantly higher among those living in urban areas (67%) in the United States. As we grapple with these compounding environmental crises, the heightened attention highlights the escalating need and fear surrounding action toward cleaner, safer air for all.

Escalating anxiety over air quality

This year alone, the escalating frequency of wildfires in Canada has added a new dimension to the ongoing concerns about air pollution and environmental degradation. The wildfire’s prominence in public discord and consciousness is apparent, with a mere 9% of those surveyed reporting no familiarity with the situation. And it’s not just knowledge but direct experience that underscores the scale of this issue: 61% of those aware of wildfire smoke reported personally witnessing or experiencing the smoke in their environment. And this is far-reaching, with the Northeast being the hardest hit, with 82% of residents experiencing the smoke. The Midwest followed closely, with 74% affected. The impact was noticeable even in regions further afield, with 46% of those in the South and 34% in the West reporting encounters with the smoke from the Canadian wildfires. Clearly, the environmental aftermath of these fires has transcended borders and impacted large swathes of the population.

Lifestyle habits change as a result of visible air quality deterioration

As the implications of air pollution become increasingly glaring and top of mind among Americans, daily routines are undergoing noticeable changes. Just over half (55%) of those aware of the deteriorating air quality are modifying their everyday habits. This trend is most prominent in the Northeastern states, where 68% have reshuffled their activities in response to the environmental changes.

The actions taken, however, tend more towards self-preservation than altruistic motives for the broader community. The most common response to the worsening air quality is keeping windows closed, an action adopted by 64% of respondents. This is followed by limiting outdoor activities (59%) and using air purifiers (40%). But despite the increasing awareness, fewer people are willing to revert to wearing masks outdoors, with only 26% claiming to have adopted this level of caution – an act rejected perhaps by years in a pandemic.

As public consciousness regarding air quality heightens, Americans increasingly utilize different platforms to stay updated on the air quality in their immediate environments. A quarter (25%) of Americans use air quality monitoring apps like weather APIs, AirVisual, and Breezometer to get real-time information. In addition, traditional sources of information remain popular, with nearly half (49%) checking local news outlets such as magazines, TV, radio stations, and newspapers for air quality updates. Cable or satellite TV is the go-to source for 37% of people, while many also turn to digital platforms. One-third (33%) of Americans refer to online news websites, and another third (31%) are harnessing the power of social media platforms for air quality data.

And as air quality discussion rises, so does overarching anxiety and concern for long-term implications. Although three-quarters (75%) report no health issues related to recent worsening air quality, 68% of people are worried about the long-term effects on their health.

Accuracy of air quality blame

Most people engaged in air quality and pollution discussions are primarily influenced and informed by immediate effects and concerns. When asked about the cause of most recent changes in air quality, 43% believe natural causes such as wildfires and dust storms are leading factors, and 30% think leading factors are climate change effects. Just 10% of Americans are concerned about industrial activities or vehicle emissions impacting air quality, and only 3% worry about agricultural or farming activities.

Whose role is it to protect and inform?

Despite two of the most notable milestones in environmental regulations in 2022, the Biden administration’s passing of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and several new legislative measures being taken in the state of California to reduce emissions, a striking three-quarters (74%) of Americans are not at all aware of any government or community initiatives addressing air quality. This number increases even more when looking at low-income households making under $50K annual income, where 80% claim no awareness of these initiatives.

37% do not believe the US government is taking adequate measures to combat air quality, and 39% feel indifferent to government involvement. Over half (54%) of Americans think the government can do the most to improve air quality in our communities by encouraging sustainable energy sources. Just under half (47%) believe enforcing more stringent industrial regulations is another step the government should take, followed by expanding green spaces (45%) and improving public transportation (35%), and 30% believe the government should promote electric vehicles for improved air quality.

What can we do?

To affect a paradigm shift in how we perceive sustainable initiatives as immediate and critical, comprehensive measures must be undertaken on multiple fronts. First, promoting awareness and understanding of the direct impact of these initiatives on air quality and overall environmental health is crucial. The good news is it looks like people are ready to change; 52% of Americans are willing to invest in such products to improve air quality, with 73% being extremely concerned about air quality, signaling a significant market for these products.

Ultimately, a collective effort involving policymakers, businesses, and consumers is required to underscore the immediacy of sustainable initiatives.

To learn more about the work we do across the realm of sustainability, check out our latest sustainability segmentation report here.

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