Waiting to Inhale: Air Pollution a Problem at Home and Abroad

smoke2In mid-January, air pollution in Beijing, China reached an alarming level. According to the municipal government, Beijing’s air contained 500 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter.This is 20 times the level recommended by the World Health Organization and almost twice the level deemed “hazardous” by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In fact, the pollution was so debilitating that Beijing authorities closed 4 major highways in the Chinese capital. They pledged to cut coal use by 2.6 million tonnes and to prohibit all heavily polluting vehicles by December 31. And, perhaps most controversially, they threatened to ban fireworks displays in honor of Chinese New Year.

But while Beijing’s air pollution has received disproportionate media cover (including a viral story about televised sunrises), it isn’t the only city facing this environmental problem. Indeed, several cities in Iran, Pakistan, and India report comparable–or worse–air pollution levels. North American cities are not immune either. Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley are notorious for smog, caused by vehicle emissions, manufacturing, and farming. Furthermore, despite significant improvements over the last 50 years, Pittsburgh continues to register high pollution levels due to coal combustion and heavy industry.

coalition for clean air2
The effects of this pollution are hard to swallow. Studies indicate that high concentrations of air pollution can trigger irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; as well as coughing and wheezing. It can exacerbate heart and lung problems, including asthma. And, after long-term exposure, it can increase the risk of cancer and mortality. Consequently, experts maintain that Alleghany County (home of Pittsburgh) is in the top 2% for cancer risk in the United States. They also estimate that the life expectancy in Beijing is 5 – 6 years lower than in China’s southern cities.

The environmental effects of air pollution are troubling as well. Sulfur and nitrogen oxides contribute to acid rain and eutrophication, impacting biodiversity. Chlorofluorocarbons and halons accelerate the depletion of the protective ozone layer. Toxic pollutants lead to reproductive problems and disease in animals and aquatic life. And greenhouse gases trap solar radiation, causing climate change.

These human and environmental effects compel us to act. As individuals, we can reduce our emissions by conserving energy, recycling, and limiting vehicle use. But a large-scale reduction in air pollution will require “much wider policies by national and international authorities”. The recent announcements in China are encouraging, as are the EPA’s efforts to implement a Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and a New Source Performance Standard (to limit CO2 emissions). Society must continue to demand such actions, and ensure their realization. Then we can all breathe a little easier.

For more information on air pollution, please contact the Clean Air Task Force, the Coalition for Clean Air, Breathe LA, or our partners, Clean Air Cool Planet and the American Lung Association in California.

Flickr Photo Credit: Kim Seng


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