Do Americans understand how air pollution from fossil fuels harms health?

John Kotcher et. al., Yale Program on Climate Change Communicaitons & the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication
05/14/19

Many Americans are unable to name a specific health problem caused by air pollution from the use of fossil fuels, and many more Americans are unaware of the full array of serious health problems caused by air pollution from the use of fossil fuels.  The results indicate that Americans are particularly unaware of neurological health problems caused by exposure to air pollution from the use of fossil fuels. Only one percent of participants responding to the open-ended question cited neurological health problems, and no respondents mentioned a number of other health conditions linked to air pollution, including diabeteskidney disease, or weakening of the bones.

Many Americans are also unaware that some groups are more likely to be affected by air pollution from fossil fuels than others, and even fewer are able to name which groups are more vulnerable.  Those respondents who said that air pollution from the use of fossil fuels does cause health problems were asked an additional set of questions. First, they were asked “Do you think that some groups of Americans are more likely than other Americans to experience health problems caused by air pollution from the use of fossil fuels?” In response, 56% of participants said they think some groups of Americans are more affected by air pollution from the use of fossil fuels than others, while 4% said no group is at higher risk, and 12% indicated that they “don’t know.”

Participants who responded that they did think some groups of Americans are more affected by air pollution from the use of fossil fuels than others were then asked an open-ended follow-up question: “Which groups of Americans do you think are more likely than other Americans to experience health problems caused by air pollution from the use of fossil fuels?” Nearly half of participants (48%) named at least one group. Seniors were mentioned most often (15%), followed by those who live or work in polluted areas (13%), children (8%), people who live in cities (8%), people who are sick or disabled (7%), those in low-income households (7%), infants and very young children (3%), those with weak immune systems (2%), minorities (2%), people living in specific geographic locations (1%), and coal miners (1%).

Many of these responses align with scientific findings. According to the American Lung Association, children and teenagers, older adults, people who have low incomes, people who work or exercise outdoors, people who live or work near busy highways, and people with lung diseases, cardiovascular diseases, or diabetes are all at higher risk of suffering health problems from air pollution.

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