Posted by: Francis Koster Published: April 30, 2009

Air Pollution: A Statement of the Opportunity

Air Pollution: A Statement of the Opportunity

by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

Air pollution comes in many flavors, some visible (particulate matter) and some invisible (various gases). This section deals with pollutants which cause direct health impacts when inhaled. The issue of CO2 and other global warming gasses are not covered here…they are dealt with in our category entitled “Global Warming”. Before going there, you should read this anyway – it is interesting.

Health Effects

The correlation between air pollution and the health of the population which breaths them is clear (pun intended). The more particles in the air, the more people get sick and/or die. One study covering 51 metropolitan geographic areas in the United States found that cleaner air could increase life expectancy up to 15%![1]

In the United States, the target for “clean air” established by the EPA is 64 mg/cubic meter…right here:

Ambient levels of PM10 mg/m3 Increase in human death Hospitalization for heart disease Hospitalization for Pneumonia and COPD
10 0.5 1% 2%
50 2.5% 5% 10%
65 4% 6.5% 13%
100 5% 10% 20%
150 7.5% 15% 30%

Based on Information from The Health Effects Institute, 2000, BI/Clean Air Revival, Inc. 2001 A different study found that for an increase of 10 micrograms/per cubic meter of PM10 (that is the measurement used in the table above as well) over two years, the risk of dying was increased by:
* 32% for people with diabetes
* 28% for people with COPD
* 27% in people with congestive heart failure
* 22% for people with inflammatory disease such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus

Kinds of air pollution

There are two major categories of air pollution, particles of stuff, and gases. The release of particles into the air from burning fuel for energy like diesel smoke or coal dust is a good example of this particulate matter. The particles are very small pieces of matter measuring about 2.5 microns or about .0001 inches. This type of pollution is sometimes referred to as "black carbon" pollution. The exhaust from burning fuels in automobiles, homes, and industries is a major source of pollution in the air. Another type of pollution is the release of noxious gases, such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and chemical vapors. These can take part in further chemical reactions once they are in the atmosphere, forming smog and acid rain. [3] Because of these chemical reactions, when they are inhaled they can be corrosive to tissue. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has responsibility for seeing to it that between its monitoring stations and those operated by state and local government that a clear profile of the breathable environment exists, and that cleanup efforts are implemented when it doesn’t. Unfortunately, while a great deal of progress has been made since this was first addressed as a matter of federal policy, much work remains to be done.

Why we have trouble fixing this

There are particular challenges in causing behavior change which will result in cleaner air. Because much air pollution is invisible, the stimulus to correct the problem lacks one of the key triggers – you cannot see it and therefore be visually prompted to do something. For example, while some percentage of the population might be motivated to clean up highway trash, or scummy stagnant water based on the visual impact, they do not have that same psychological trigger when confronting ozone, or other invisible substances. Even among the population who gets sick as a result of pollution may not react, because they do not see the link to themselves, or they feel the problem is too big for them to impact alone. The second issue is that the problem is often caused by individuals who see 100% of the positive impact of polluting, and if they even perceive the negative impact on health will perceive it years later, and as a tiny fraction of the totality of the problem. For example, in America, a small engines on a lawn mower causes as much air pollution as 34 cars![4] It is an uphill battle to persuade the family lawn steward to stop using that gas propelled mower, because the benefit is immediate, and visible, whereas the health impact it far away in time and space.

Good solutions

A number of very innovative programs have been devised to overcome the challenge created by short term personal reward verses far away diffused punishment to others. Check out an example solution: the Gas Cap Program. For more detail on the entire problem of air pollution, simply Google “air pollution” and “health effects” and/or “cost” and you will be smothered in data.





[2] American Thoracic Society, Posted: May 22, 2006


[4] Emissions Standards Tightened: EPA Sets New Limits for Lawn Equipment, Boat Motors, Washington Post, September 5, 2008; Page A04
Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.

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