Bad air days affect all of us | OPINION

Clinics are busy treating flu and the common cold these days — 21 days with treatment, three weeks without. Or longer. Puget Sound’s prolonged temperature inversions trap pollution that makes eyes water, noses stuffy and throats raw. It’s an especially bad season for sinuses.

Being a walking-talking air pollution monitor, I have a good idea about what’s behind it. Any slight drift of something different on the breeze can choke up my breathing apparatus. My sensitivity is such that, should I need a new job, I could work as a Transportation Safety Authority as a baggage sniffer.

I escape socked-in lowlands by hanging out on mountain tops with ski buddies where the rarified air is clear and clean besides offering stunning views across the Cascades. But, alas, each day among the peak ends with a return to lung-choking lowland murk. My only consolation is that people in other places have it much worse.

China burns half the world’s coal production and for that they pay a horrendous price. Pollution in Chinese cities can top twenty-five times the U.S. legal limit for airborne particulates. Chinese pollution won’t get any better after we send them eighteen trainloads of coal per day. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if the Chinese kept their pollution at home but with air currents always on the move, China’s problem becomes our problem.

Satellite photos show plumes of Chinese smog hundreds of miles wide streaming eastward toward us. Tests of local air have proved that a significant part of the pollution we breathe originates in China. Air pollution isn’t a local problem, it is global.

On one hand I accept the globalization of air pollution while on the other hand my irritated respiratory tract yells that it’s not only a local issue but very personal. It turns out that atmospheric pollution causes more than temporary breathing issues. Studies have positively linked air pollution to the occurrence of chronic bronchitis, emphysema, cancer, damage to the immune system and neurological, reproductive and developmental problems. So while attacking air pollution on a global scale we have to deal with its effects locally.

Consider this: While water from the tap is safe to drink because it’s been filtered and treated, bad air becomes breathable only if we wear fancy face-masks. It’s becoming a bigger issue year by year as we watch health effects of air pollution climb while swallowing industrial propaganda that alternative energies are ineffective and impractical. Meanwhile, Puget Sound’s forty annual days of bad air grow to eighty and we begin to accept respiratory distress as part of the normal human condition.

Or we could demand that makers of gaseous garbage clean up their act. We try to stay healthy locally by washing our hands. We try to avoid infecting others when we’re diseased. We demand purity from what we eat and drink. Yet we allow big time energy-consumers to poison our air, flooding the atmosphere with bad stuff. And we bear part of the guilt through our willing dependence on polluting devices.

At least thirty studies being conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health check links between health issues and air quality pollution. Big NIEH projects look for broad connections to blood pressure and narrower focus on conditions such as sleep-disordered breathing. With most families, friends and neighbors suffering one or both of those, air pollution becomes a very local issue.

Air pollution begins with combustion, call it burning. No matter what the fuel or burning device, gaseous products of combustion invade the air we breathe. Vehicle engines, power generation, slash-and-burn agriculture, wild fires, backyard barbecues, cigarettes, home heating, cooking, portable power tools, fireworks, jet exhausts, ships at sea, factories — whatever the source, so long as combustion is involved, it contributes to the problem.

Graphs showing the growth of air pollution tell me that bad air days will become more numerous. That means more medical appointments and more absenteeism at work, leading to higher medical costs and decreased production. That moves the discussion from a public health issue to economics. China is finding that out.

Since the past is done, gone        and not to be re-lived, any cure will lie in what we choose to do next. The condo I now own is a perfect example of what not to do. Its furnace is far from state of the art efficiency. Its roof(s) don’t allow capture of solar energy. The plumbing requires heating a whole lot of pipe before delivering hot water to distant faucets. Its decorative fireplace displays pretty flames while ducting all the heat up the chimney. Mea culpa.

We’ve heard national leaders tell us that we go to war to make the world safe for our children and our children’s children ... etc. Better yet, how about a war against processes that make air unhealthy for children everywhere? The enemy in that war is combustion.

Comments may be sent to robertgraef@comcast.net.


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