I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. More than a decade after the passage of the Federal Clean Air Act, LA’s worst air pollution days were behind it by the 1980’s, but smog alerts were certainly not uncommon during the hot summer days of my childhood. It’s not surprising, then, that air pollution is the environmental issue that’s most caught my attention as an adult. It’s not gotten the attention lately that some other environmental issues have, but highly-publicized episodes of chokingly high particulate matter this winter in urban China and, to a lesser extent, along Utah’s Wasatch Front, have served as good reminders that we could stand to make some progress in cleaning the air that we breathe.
I’m delighted to have the opportunity to write a series of posts for LDS Earth Stewardship over the next few months focusing on the scientific and political issues associated with air pollution. In this first post, I’d like to discuss some of the health concerns associated with air pollution, and describe why I think these concerns should be especially important to Latter-day Saints.
In the US, ozone and fine particles are the two most important air pollutants. Ozone, an odorless, colorless gas, isn’t emitted directly, but is formed in the air when precursor molecules from cars, trucks, factories and chemical solvents react in the presence of sunlight. In healthy individuals, high ozone levels cause lung inflammation, shortness of breath. But ozone poses a much larger problem for those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions: Asthmatics hate high ozone days, as they’re almost certain to have more difficulty breathing. The elderly and children are also at risk, simply because their systems are more delicate, less robust.
If you think you’re safe from high ozone levels because you don’t live in the city, you might want to think again. Winds carry the ozone precursors along while the mixture is reacting to produce ozone, so high ozone levels can often be found miles from the urban area where the precursors are emitted. The highest ozone levels in the Los Angeles area, for instance, are often measured at a monitor in the Angeles National Forest, about 70 miles northeast of downtown LA.
Particulate matter, on the other hand, is not composed of gas, but rather of tiny solids or liquids suspended in the air. The smallest particles—those with diameters less than 2.5 microns, known simply as PM2.5—have the biggest impact on health, since they’re inhaled deeply into the lungs, and can actually pass into the bloodstream. These can be emitted directly—diesel engines are a huge source—or formed in the air from precursor gases. Although individually the particles are too small to see with the naked eye, together they scatter sunlight, resulting in the tell-tale brown haze we associate with polluted days.
Particles can cause the same sort of lung irritation and asthma flare-ups as ozone, but also pose a risk to cardiovascular health. When particles enter the blood stream, they are thought to irritate blood vessels, leading to worsening of arteriosclerosis. Again, those with pre-existing heart and lung disease are at the most risk.
Even more insidious than the acute effects of high ozone and particles is the cumulative effect on children growing up in areas with significant air pollution levels. By age 18, children living in these areas show significantly reduced lung function compared to children in less polluted areas. The compromised lung function is understood to be irreversible, leading to significant health impacts in adulthood.
Lest you think the news is all gloom and doom, though, there’s evidence that improvements in air quality are resulting in real health gains: A 2009 study estimated that efforts to reduce fine particles in urban areas in the US in the 1980’s and 1990’s resulted in an average increase in life expectancy of about five months. Not too shabby!
Concerns for Latter-day Saints
There are a couple of reasons I think we as Latter-day Saints ought to be especially concerned with air pollution. For starters, our theology points to our bodies as precious gifts from the Creator. We take quite literally Paul’s assertion that our bodies are temples. We wouldn’t dream of smoking tobacco, but the air that some of us in urban areas breathe impacts our health in much the same way that smoking would.
Even worse, as I mentioned above, poor air quality tends to disproportionately affect those who are already sick. And it tends to disproportionately affect the poor, since lower-income neighborhoods are often those that get the worst of the emissions from major polluters like rail yards and ports. The families who live there are often among the least able to afford the health care that living in a polluted area makes necessary, and one imagines that the lung damage the children who are raised in these areas suffer makes it more challenging for them to navigate the competitive employment world as adults. One of our most cherished values as a people is our concern for the less fortunate. King Benjamin taught his people to show extra care for those in need—the poor, the sick—a charge that hasn’t been rescinded. I believe that doing what we can to make sure everyone has access to clean air is an important part of discharging our duty to care for the less fortunate.
Just how do we do our part? Certainly individual action—driving less, consuming less—is important. But I’d also like to suggest that learning more about the issues can help us be better-informed participants in the political processes that help set air pollution policy, from analyzing ballot initiatives to educating neighbors to speaking up in public meetings. With that in mind, I’ve planned a series of approximately-monthly posts that will highlight some issues in air pollution science, regulation and policy. I’m excited to share what I’ve learned with you about the air that we breathe!