The Air I breathed as a Child

Andy Koenigsberg

Oct 15, 2017

When I was a child in the early 1970s, growing up on Long Island, about 30 miles east of NY City, I remember going to the edge of an old sand quarry at sunset during the summers, where I could stare directly into the setting sun. With binoculars, I could see sunspots. I could look directly at the sun because the air was so polluted.

Beyond the myriad human illnesses caused by air pollution such as asthma, emphysema, and coronary artery disease, consequences included acid rain, which devastated forests and lakes throughout the northeast. Trees died and freshwater fish populations in lakes declined precipitously, among many other consequences.

Regulations resulting from the Clean Air Act of 1970 and equivalent legislation in Europe led to the long term decline in various forms of air pollution. A cap and trade system put into effect in the US resulted in steadily decreasing sulfur power plant pollution.

I’ve asked myself, with all the improvements in air quality in the ensuing decades, is our air clean enough? Based on an article I read in a recent issue of Science News (09/30/2017, p 18-21), which summarizes the latest research, the answer is an unequivocal no. In fact, the list of modern human maladies connected to air pollution is increasing.

After filtering out other factors, scientists found that even when particulate pollutants (soot from vehicles, power plant, and factory emissions) remain below what are now considered maximum safe levels, death rates still correlate with increases of these substances in the air we breathe. Current estimates are that 200,000 people die each year just from particulate pollution and in the cities where pollution is higher, so is the death rate. The mechanism appears to be inflammation which extends beyond the lungs to other regions of the body, which leads to substantial increases in heart disease and stroke, just as cigarettes do.

Based on animal studies, inflammation from pollution is also a contributor to obesity. Indeed, population studies show that the closer one lives to a major roadways the heavier they were, especially children. Links to diabetes have also been found in both human and animal studies. Particulate pollution and ozone contribute to insulin insensitivity.

The latest studies are showing links between particulate pollution to an increased rate of brain aging, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. Eighteen such studies have been published and although more work needs to be done, researchers are alarmed.

These observations are being made in a country where the levels of particulate and ozone pollution are already below regulatory standards in most cases. I shudder to think about what is happening in other countries without such controls, for example China and India.

Given what we have known for decades on top of current findings, we need to ask ourselves how much we are willing to sacrifice in terms of increased mortality and preventable illness in order to use our heavily polluting power sources like coal.

We want a certain lifestyle in this country, but are we still willing to pay for it in terms of lives lost? Given the policies of the elected government in Washington, D.C., who are promoting coal instead of alternative energy that answer, sadly, appears to be yes.

However, even though EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said without irony that “The war against coal is over,” after the Trump administration recently discarded Obama’s Clean Power Plan, all is not lost for those of us who want cleaner air.

Despite rescinding Obama’s moratorium on leasing more federal land for coal mining and rolling back regulations, the coal industry is still dying. Demand for coal is still declining, and several applications for leasing federal lands have either been cancelled or have gone without any takers, because demand is still declining.

142 existing coal plants partially or completely shut down since 2009. 81% of the over 200 proposed projects since 2000 have been cancelled, based on Sierra Club data.

Most of coal’s decline can be traced to cheap natural gas, but increasingly the competition is coming from renewable energy, such as wind and solar. According to Bloomberg, solar is the cheapest form of new energy, especially in developing countries and solar can compete even without government subsidies.

I wish that we had a government which accepts the science that burning coal is bad policy, bad for our health, and bad for our environment, but I happily accept that market forces are doing what reason and evidence cannot.

The “war on coal” may have been “won,” for the time being, but it’s a pyrrhic victory at best.

I doubt the air in the US will ever return to the kind I breathed as a child, but the battle for cleaner air, unfortunately, still continues.