Smog, acid rain, methane, and other forms of outdoor air pollution, as well as air pollution inside homes and other buildings, can all affect the environment. Cars, trucks, coal-burning energy plants, and incinerators all make controllable contributions to air pollution. New environmental air pollution regulations continue to decrease emissions but with industry resistance.
II. Air Pollution and Public Health
III. State of Air Pollution
IV. What Is Pollution?
V. Indoor Air Pollution
Air quality has been a driving force for U.S. and global air pollution control. It can be quite different from region to region and over time. Geological features such as deep mountain valleys may facilitate dangerous atmospheric conditions when on the downwind side of industrial emissions, heavy car and truck traffic, and wood and coal stoves. Points of contention in the air quality debate are scientific monitoring of air quality conditions, debate over what chemicals to regulate as pollution, and environmentalists’ concerns over weak and incomplete enforcement. Each one of these is a controversy itself.
Air Pollution and Public Health
One of the primary criteria for an airborne chemical to be a pollutant is its effect on public health. One of the first areas of public concern about air pollution is breathing.
Asthma is becoming more common. This is true even though some air pollutant concentrations have decreased. The increase in asthma is concentrated in people of color and low-income people. The incidence of acute asthma attacks in children doubled in the last 13 years even as very effective medicines were developed. About five million child hospitalizations were children who had asthma attacks. It is the most frequent cause of childhood hospitalization. Deaths of children with asthma rose 78 percent from 1980 to 1993. It is concentrated in high-population urban areas. This one environmental effect of air pollution can spread to inner-ring suburbs then to air regions over time. Asthma is described as like breathing through a straw. The serious public health issues around air pollution highlight the gravity of the problem as a whole.
Air pollution can have short- and long-term health effects. Asthma from air pollution can have short- and long-term effects. Short-term effects of asthma are irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat. Long-term reactions to air pollution can include upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Other symptoms of exposure to air pollution are headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions. Short-term air pollution can aggravate underlying medical conditions of individuals with asthma and emphysema. Long-term health effects are more controversial. Depending on the type of air pollution, there is general consensus that exposure can cause chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease, and damage to the brain, nerves, liver, or kidneys. Continual exposure to most kinds of air pollution affects the lungs of growing children by scarring them at early stages of development. Recent studies suggest that the closer one is raised to a freeway in southern California, a notoriously low-quality air region overall, the greater the chance of having one of the listed long-term effects.
Cumulative exposure to polluted air does aggravate or complicate medical conditions in the elderly. Some air pollution risk is involuntarily assumed. However, people die prematurely every year in the United States because of smoking cigarettes and voluntarily increasing other risk factors. Members of these communities label this type of risk assessment as blaming the victim. The involuntary assumption of health risks is something most communities strongly object to. With the advent of the Toxics Release Inventory many communities can track airborne industrial emissions. Citizen monitoring of environmental decisions has increased, especially around air quality issues.
State of Air Pollution
The air becomes polluted in different ways. How the air becomes polluted determines the types of problems it causes. Different sources of emissions contain different chemicals. These may interact with other airborne chemicals in unknown ways. As the chemicals mix with moisture in the air they can become rain. The rain can move the chemicals through the ecosystem, including crops and livestock. Mercury, lead, and aluminum all move in this way, with adverse ecological effects. There may be other chemicals with adverse ecological effects that do not last as long as metals do and may therefore be hard to detect while present. Air pollution can expose populations to more than just airborne pollution.
What Is Pollution?
The term pollution has important legal and environmental meanings. Legally, it means that a person or business is not complying with environmental laws. Many environmentalists do not think this is extensive enough and believe that large environmental impacts can be considered pollution even if they are legal. Many permits do not in fact decrease emissions but permit more emissions.
Many permits have numerous exceptions to emissions. The petrochemical industry is allowed de minimus, fugitive, and emergency emissions beyond the permit, and that industry is leaking a valuable commodity. Industry argues that if it complies with all the environmental laws, then its emissions are not pollution because they are part of the permit issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) via the respective state environmental regulatory agency. Although state and federal environmental agencies argue with the regulated industries, communities, and environmentalists, the actual environmental impact has worsened. Whereas many environmental decisions are made behind closed doors, more and more communities are monitoring the environment themselves.
One type of air pollution is particulate matter. The particles are pieces of matter (usually carbon) measuring about 2.5 microns or about 0.0001 inches. Sources of particulate matter are the exhaust from burning fuels in automobiles, trucks, airplanes, homes, and industries. This type of air pollution can clog and scar young, developing lungs. Some of these particles can contain harmful metals. Another type of air pollution is dangerous gases such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and other chemical vapors. Once in the atmosphere they follow the prevailing winds until they condense and fall to the ground as precipitation. This type of pollution can participate in more chemical reactions in the atmosphere, some of which form smog and acid rain. Other atmospheric chemical reactions are the subject of intense scientific controversy and are part of the debates of global warming and climate change.
Most air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels for industrial processes, transportation, and energy use in homes and commercial buildings. Natural processes can emit regulated chemicals at times. It is a subject of continuing scientific debate, both generally and specifically, how much of a given chemical is naturally emitted versus how much of the emission is from human actions.
The Natural Resources Defense Council closely tracks the air emissions of the biggest polluters. They call it their benchmarking project. They are a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that believes in keeping track of environmental conditions to establish a baseline. Their research is based on publicly available environmental information, much of it available in the Toxics Release Inventory. Key findings of the benchmarking project’s 2004 report include the following:
- Emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides have decreased by 36 percent and 44 percent, respectively, since the stricter pollution-control standards of the 1990 Clean Air Act went into effect.
- Carbon dioxide emissions increased 27 percent over the same period.
- Carbon dioxide emissions are expected to spike in coming years due to a large number of proposed new coal plants.
- Wide disparities in pollution rates persist throughout the electricity industry with a small number of companies producing a relatively large amount of emissions.
- Few power plants use currently available, state-of-the-art emissions control technologies.
- The electric power industry remains a major source of mercury emissions in the United States.
The Natural Resources Defense Council’s benchmarking project uses public data to compare the emissions performance of the 100 largest power producers in the United States. They account for 88 percent of reported electricity generation and 89 percent of the industry’s reported emissions. Emissions performance is examined with respect to four primary power plant pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and carbon dioxide. These pollutants cause or contribute to global warming and to environmental and health problems including acid rain, smog, particulate pollution, and mercury deposition.
Indoor Air Pollution
The air inside of buildings can be as polluted as outside air. Indoor air can accumulate gases and other chemicals more quickly than outside air. Cooking, heating, smoking, painting, new carpeting and glue, and heavy electronic equipment usage can all affect indoor air quality. Large numbers of books without adequate ventilation can cause carbon dioxide to build up. As most people spend most of their time indoors, the exposure to this air is much greater. Vulnerable populations, such as the very young and very old, spend even more time inside. Depending on the pollutants, indoor air pollution can lead to mold and fire hazards.
The controversies around air pollution show no signs of abating. Points of concentrated air pollution are getting more attention and becoming political battlegrounds.
Ports are the latest example of this. On September 5, 2007, the EPA began a research project to test equipment that measures air emissions by equipment used in ports to move goods around docks and on and off cargo ships, trucks, and trains. Most of this equipment burns diesel fuel. The EPA wants to test new equipment that can recapture the energy of hydraulic brakes and thereby use less polluting fuel. They are predicting fuel savings of 1,000 gallons per vehicle per year, with decreased maintenance costs for the fleet. The EPA is working with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Kalmar Industries, Parker Hannifin Corporation, and the Port of Rotterdam. Port authorities are very powerful independent legal entities that can neither tax nor be taxed. They issue bonds. Interest on bonds is not income for federal tax purposes, or for state tax purposes if issued in that state. Wealthy individuals can reduce their tax liability and invest in the country’s infrastructure. Historically, this was done in the West with railroad bonds. Authorities are creatures of state law, but very little is required in the way of public participation or environmental planning. Port authorities are able to resist many environmental requirements, especially if they involve several different states. The environment and ecology of ports are often toxic and unappealing. Ports are places where many ships empty their bilges of waste, often illegally. Some states have passed legislation to prevent cruise ships from dumping their wastes in their ports, such as California. Ports have also been the site of land-based waste-dumping practices. Along tidal areas many communities did this with the idea that the tide would take it away. Wastes from fishing and fish processing can also add to the mix. Ports are also the terminus of many rivers that have collected agricultural runoff, municipal sewage, industrial water discharges, and other types of waste. Ports are among the most environmentally challenging ecosystem reconstruction projects in the United States. In early 2000 many port authorities began to incorporate principles of sustainability into their long-range strategic corporate planning. The cumulative effects of waste, the increasing liability for cleanup costs and its accounting as a contingent liability, and increasing urban environmental activism all undercut achieving anything sustainable in an environmental, business, or social sense. Port authorities now partner with the EPA around air pollution, expressly motivated by a concern about sustainability. New controversies will also emerge from these new policies, such as how clean is clean.
The environmental policies and laws do have the intended effect of reducing the emissions of some chemicals emitted by most industries. However, asthma rates increase and so too does community concern. It is likely that the costs of further decreasing emissions from industry, from municipalities, and from all of us will be more expensive. The current context of global warming and rapid climate change drives many air pollution controversies to center stage.
Robert William Collin
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