Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Air Pollution: In Your Own Backyard

In a previous post, I mentioned that I’m originally from Los Angeles, a city whose air pollution is legendary. In fact, I’m part of the third generation of my family to call Los Angeles home. Probably not coincidentally, I’m also part of the third generation of my family to suffer from asthma. As I sincerely hope you don’t know and never find out, it’s a special kind of misery to have to fight to draw breath, or watch someone you love do the same. The American Lung Association’s past motto rings true: “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

It’s probably easy to see why I would care about air pollution, but if your home isn’t routinely besieged by airborne pollutants, then why should you care? Of course, as Christians we know that mere geographic proximity does not a neighbor make, and consequently we should care for the welfare of those we do not know who live in cities we do not frequent.  However, there’s another thing to consider: air pollution and respiratory illness are incredibly widespread in the U.S., much more so than you might think.

The  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that asthma, for example, affects more than 25 million Americans.  While everyone can suffer the ill effects of air pollution when levels are high enough, our 25 million neighbors with asthma are likely to experience symptoms at much lower concentrations. (This difference is reflected in the Air Quality Index (AQI) ratings with the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” category.) All other forms of respiratory disease and even cardiovascular disease can be aggravated by elevated air pollution as well.

Unhealthy air affects many, many cities in the U.S.  The American Lung Association’s 2013 State of the Air Report finds that 42% of U.S. residents live in a city that fails to meet federal air quality standards for ozone, fine particulates, or both. That’s over 130 million people in the US breathing air that does not meet minimum health standards!  I find that shocking.

The State of the Air report includes a report card for each major U.S. city, with grades for each of three most significant federal air quality standards: ozone, short-term fine particle exposure, and long-term fine particle exposure. You can check to see how your city measures up, or look at the full city rankings here.  Not surprisingly, my hometown fails on all three standards. But you might be surprised that my current home in environmentally-aware Northern California fails two of the three. Also, keep in mind that there can be health impacts even at levels slightly below the standard, so Cs and Ds are nothing to be proud of here!

I’ll talk more in a future post about what you can do to help reduce air pollution in your community (hint: drive less, buy less, don’t burn things), but until things improve, allow me to suggest a few practical steps you can take to protect your and your family’s lungs.

• If you can live at least 1000 feet from a freeway or major thoroughfare, do. Concentrations of pollutants from automobile exhaust are highest closest to the source of traffic.
• Consider postponing outdoor activities if the forecast calls for unhealthy air, or air that is “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Keep in mind that “sensitive groups” isn’t just people with heart and lung disease, although it certainly includes them. The group also includes children, the elderly, and athletes (middle-aged couch potatoes get a pass on this one, apparently!).
• Use caution with recreational fires. My environmental evangelism makes me unpopular enough that I’m not going to risk telling anyone to smother the campfire or skip the barbeque. But be smart about your exposure. If you notice little ones coughing, move them away from the smoke. Fireworks produce enormous amounts of fine particles. Indoor fireplaces can be a problem, too, even if they’re properly vented.

Previously, I argued that fighting for clean air could be seen as an extension of our duty as Latter-day Saints to care for the poorest and sickest among us. I believe that. And surely we should care for the poor and the needy, however far away from us they live. But I hope I’ve provided some evidence that air pollution isn’t just a problem somewhere else, that it’s become a pervasive problem across the U.S., and may even affect your city and your neighbors, which gives us all the more reason to care.

In my next few posts, I plan to look in a little more detail at regional air quality issues in two places: Los Angeles and the Wasatch Front. I know the Utah air quality issues are of special interest to many blog readers, and I promise to address them. However, I hope you’ll indulge me by letting me begin my case studies with a look at air quality issues in Southern California. For starters, I’m much more familiar with the air quality problems in California, and I’ll need a few months to study up on what’s going on in Utah. But in addition to being ground zero for the US air pollution problem, the Los Angeles story also provides evidence that systematic, concerted effort by governments, environmental advocates and even industry can lead to significant progress toward clear air.

I hope you’ll stay tuned!