Clearer Skies Still Can Kill

The story so far:  On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents.  A Smoke Elimination Committee was created and it met through January and into February sorting out its limited options for finagling cleaning the city’s air. As February continued, the city waited for the committee’s report.

By Bob Wyss

Seventy-five years after St. Louis faced a severe air pollution crisis and most cities throughout the United States have been beset at times with similar problems, one would think that the situation involving our sky had improved.

In the U.S. citizens no longer choke on the thick, black smoke that blanketed St. Louis so many days in the winter of 1939-40. Research has demonstrated the dangers of air pollution, advocates have pushed for changes and by the 1970s – now more than 40 years ago – Congress had enacted the Clean Air Act and other measures to clamp down on air pollution.

China Olympia

Air pollution remains high in many cities, including Beijing where this woman wore a mask while riding a bicycle just weeks before the Summer Olympics in 2008. – AP

Yet we still seem far from winning the battle.

According to a recent report by the American Lung Association, better than half of the U.S. population lives in counties with unhealthy levels of either ground-level ozone or particle pollution. That’s about 147.6 million people.

More than 27.8 million reside in the 17 counties considered the most unhealthy, because the levels of all measured air pollutants were measured at hazardous levels.

The situation is even worse when we look beyond the American borders, as this blog has been attempting to do on a regular basis just by measuring the air quality index in three cities, Beijing, Shanghai, and Delhi.

The World Health Organization estimates that outdoor air pollution caused 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012. The vast majority – 88 percent – occurred in both rural and urban areas of the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia.

About 80 percent of these deaths came from heart disease and stroke, 14 percent from chronic pulmonary or respiratory ailments and 6 percent from lung cancer. Smoking may have contributed to some of the deaths, but according to WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer outdoor air pollution is carcinogenic, especially causing cancer of the lung.

Almost as an after-thought, WHO also reports that indoor air pollution has become a serious health risk for about three billion people who cook or heat their homes with a variety of organic fuels such as wood and charcoal and also from coal.

India Air Pollution

The monumental Indian Gate in New Delhi is shrouded in air pollution one day in 2013. – AP

These health reports do not even touch on the planet’s other great environmental and health crisis, the rising levels of carbon and other pollutants from human sources that are raising the temperature of the earth.

The cause of the planet’s dangerous air is complex. In 75 years the automobile and its tailpipe exhaust has become a major issue in American cities and worldwide. In addition, the world itself is becoming increasingly industrial, and smokestacks everywhere vent their waste.

Still, to a certain degree a good deal of the blame falls on the same fuel that threatened St. Louis in 1940 – coal.

Health officials at the time were concerned about particulate matter in the air, particles of sulfate, nitrate, ammonia and other chemicals. Much of the concern was on the particles that were minute and yet in combination still created the soot and smoke that stained the laundry, and caused lights to be switched on in the middle of the day.

While this soot no longer bothers major American cities, smoke stacks still emit vast amounts of these microscopic particles. What we now know is that it is the tiniest of these particles, those that are less than 10 microns, are the most dangerous. These are so small they can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs.

The Lung Association report was not entirely negative. “We are happy to repot continued reduction of year-round particle pollution across the nation, thanks to cleaner diesel fleets and cleaner power plants,” Harold Wimmer, the ALA’s national president said in a prepared statement. But much still needs to be done. “All of us – everyone in every family – have the right to healthy air.”

And how did St. Louis fare in the report?

About as foul as the air 75 years ago.

The city was ranked the 13th worst in the nation for its level of ground-level ozone, caused by industrial pollution and car exhaust. It was ranked the 8th worst nationally in particle pollution.

According to the report those who are most at risk from the particle pollution, the young, the old, the poor, are estimated to be 318,172.

This, 75 years after St. Louis thought it was facing its greatest crisis in the skies.

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