How Long Before Life-Endangering Air Pollution Becomes A Top-of-Mind Concern?
By Alan Kandel
Houston: We (California) have a problem, a Texas-sized problem.
With the climate change debate front-page news, the fight to combat air pollution is every bit as important in my book; perhaps even more so. If not, what is this saying?
California's San Joaquin Valley is the place I call home. The Valley is among the nation's worst offenders.
So that which is being spewed into the air in California's central interior, where is it coming from? The following is from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
- Motor vehicles - 57%
- Off-road vehicles, lawn & garden equipment and consumer products - 20%
- Industrial sources - 11%
- Outdoor burning - 9%
- Fireplaces and woodstoves - 3%
Valley cities consistently rank among the nation's ten worst for ozone (smog) and particulate matter pollution (PM 2.5), both short-term (24-hour) and year-round (annual), according to the American Lung Association (ALA).
The reality: that pollution affects people's lives.
The ALA reports, "More than 40 percent of people in the United States live in areas where air pollution continues to threaten their health. That means more than 127 million people are living in counties with dangerous levels of either ozone or particle pollution that can cause wheezing and coughing, asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature death. Those at greatest risk from air pollution include infants, children, older adults, anyone with lung diseases like asthma, people with heart disease or diabetes, people with low incomes and anyone who works or exercises outdoors."
Moreover, in a press release the Port of Long Beach (POLB) writes: "Diesel particulate matter is part of a complex mixture that makes up diesel exhaust, but it is arguably the most harmful to human health. The state of California lists diesel particulate matter as a toxic air contaminant based on its potential to increase the risk of cancer, premature death and other health problems."
But perhaps most alarmingly, in the California Progress Report op-ed: "Why We Need High-Speed Rail and Why Trains Are Needed Now," I brought to bear this eye-opening and thought-provoking revelation:
"Ozone, the main ingredient in smog, rubs like sandpaper against delicate lung tissue," Barbara Anderson in the Fresno Bee's special "Fighting For Air" installment wrote. "And particulates - tiny bits of soot, chemicals and dust - irritate and inflame lungs."
And speaking of soot, "Diesel soot, a known carcinogen, is linked to lung problems, heart disease and early mortality - more than 9,000 people die prematurely each year because of it, according to state figures," Fresno Bee environmental reporter Mark Grossi wrote.
In the Golden State it is estimated 26,000 people annually lose their lives due to health impacts related to air pollution, and that's just in California.
Is ground being gained, lost or unchanged in the battle to reduce state air pollution levels? This is especially important considering the projected growth in state population. The number of Californians by year 2050 is expected to be anywhere from 50 million to 60 million strong.
The fight to cut harmful air emissions from all sources across the state, throughout the country and around the globe should be relentless. It's sad enough having to see pollution first hand; it's even more disheartening when we know what we are seeing is also entering our bloodstreams, hearts, lungs and respiratory systems. Not taking necessary and sufficient steps to combat it, could that be considered ... criminal?
In that I'm an air pollution junkie, not by choice but due to environmental factors, and being that I am regularly reminded of air pollution's impact - face-to-face contact with asthma sufferers, and in witness of coughing spells and expectorating episodes including my own, I'm perturbed and discontent with the status quo. Who wouldn't be?! Not nearly enough, apparently.
All of this physical malaise may or may not be a result of dirty air. Regardless, I cannot and will not rest (and breathe) easy until clean-air-wise the west is won. Nor will I abandon being a champion for needed change in this regard.
To use an analogy, air pollution may not be the kind of top-of-the-mind concern that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico once was. No question the flow of fugitive oil in that region took a hefty toll. The effects were harsh and immediate. As a consequence, the well-being of the region's ecosystem suffered greatly and it may be decades before things in this regard return to pre-Gulf-spill conditions. Moreover, personal livelihoods of those affected were, for a time, put on hold.
Arguably, air pollution is no less problematic, but unlike the Gulf spill, toxic air hasn't garnered nearly the same attention. Should it have? I believe it should have. Air pollution's effect on so-affected people's health and lives can in no way be denied.
Alan Kandel is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by Union Pacific Railroad, and an advocate for improved and expanded rail service.