The Science Speaks blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series explains focal topics through relatable analogies and asks readers to consider key opportunities, explore avenues for advancing gender equity and equality, and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
Based on a folk tale, Disney’s Cinderella tells the story of a mistreated young girl who secretly attends a royal gala and ends up marrying a prince. While this classic film has remained a fan-favorite for more than 70 years (even prompting a live-action remake in 2015), I can’t help but notice that the plot underscores how women and other marginalized groups are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality.
Air quality is defined by the concentration of pollutants in the atmosphere. Because the movement of airborne pollutants is influenced by wind patterns, temperature changes, and other factors, air quality changes over time and based on location. While different countries report air quality data on different scales (based on their own air pollution standards), certain types of pollutants are commonly measured because of their negative consequences for people, ecosystems, or materials. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and outdoor workers are among the individuals most severely affected.
Women and girls, especially in developing countries where biomass- or coal-fired cooking remains common, are more likely to suffer from poor indoor air quality due to household responsibilities.Aubrey R. Paris, PhDGender, Climate, and Innovation Policy Advisor, U.S. Department of State
Air pollutants come from both human activities and natural processes. Many gaseous pollutants (e.g., carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides) are products of combustion or industrial processes. Particulate matter (i.e., miniscule solid particles or liquid droplets) derives from these anthropogenic sources plus natural phenomena like volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and sea spray. In the least surprising plot twist of all time (her name literally means “girl of the ashes”), Cinderella is exposed to particulate matter when completing household chores. Levels of certain pollutants, including particulate matter and ground-level ozone, are expected to as a result of the climate crisis.
Cinderella should be concerned because the effects of poor air quality are perhaps most pronounced when considering human health. Air pollutants may cause, trigger, or worsen myriad respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, ranging from asthma, to heart disease, to stroke. In many parts of the world, particulate matter pollution has even been tied to poor pregnancy outcomes, including low birth weight and pre-term births.
To further complicate matters, air pollution isn’t encountered exclusively outdoors. Buildings with inadequate ventilation can trap pollutants from cook stoves, fireplaces, building materials, and more. Women and girls, especially in developing countries where biomass- or coal-fired cooking remains common, are more likely to suffer from poor indoor air quality due to household responsibilities, and even fiction presents no exception. Cinderella’s household chores—cooking, dusting, and cleaning the fireplace—are her most significant sources of exposure.
Air pollutants also contribute to acid rain (which erodes materials), exacerbate climate change, and cause habitat degradation. Ground-level ozone even causes crop losses, and in locations where farming is their only economic opportunity, lower harvests disproportionately affect women farmers. In times of scarcity, women (who typically earn less than men) are also more vulnerable to rising food prices and, when caring for family, are more likely to go without food.
Exposure to air pollution correlates with location and demographics. In the racial and ethnic minorities and low-income populations are more likely to live in areas with poor air quality. In many East, Central, and South Asian cities, levels of particulate matter are consistently unsafe, while in many African cities, air quality is largely unknown due to lack of monitoring. Cumulatively, premature deaths and loss of productivity attributed to poor air quality have been estimated to cost the global economy $5 trillion per year. Strategies to overcome air pollution challenges are wide-ranging and include land use planning, renewable energy adoption, energy efficiency upgrades, and more.
Initiatives to monitor and improve air quality have long been supported by the U.S. Government. For example, the State Department provides foreign assistance funding for air quality, facilitates cooperation on transboundary air quality concerns, and hosts the Air Quality Fellows program, which matches U.S. experts with our embassies and consulates for engagement abroad. Early this year, the ZephAir mobile app was created to provide public users with air quality data collected from monitors at more than 60 U.S. Missions. Other federal agencies are responsible for setting domestic , providing real-time , deploying , and funding on air quality. Encompassing both domestic and foreign policy, the newly released identifies the pursuit of gender equity in climate change mitigation and response as one of ten strategic priorities.
Though unintentional, the fictional story of Cinderella can motivate us to improve the reality of air quality for all. How can your choices reduce air pollution today?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a contracted Gender, Climate & Innovation Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues. Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.