Monday, January 7, 2008

Emissions aren't just about climate--they're still killing us

In all the furor over carbon dioxide and global warming, many folks have lost sight of some of the other impacts of air pollution.

It's still killing us.

A simple search found a pile of recent research, linking air pollution to low sperm counts, low birth weights, asthma and other health problems in kids, heart and blood pressure issues in adults and on and on.

Do you need another reason to be unhappy with the neighbor who climbs into her/his SUV or high-powered truck, or zoom-zoom luxury sedan (read: toxic emission pumpers)?

Do you need something besides envy to inform your dismay with folks building ridiculously appointed, energy-inefficient luxury homes?

Do you need a reason to think twice when you pile clothes in the dryer that could be air-dried, flick on the air-conditioning, fail to use public transportation or neglect to insist your lawmakers pay immediate attention to these issues?

How about this: It's making you, and your children, and your neighbors sick.

There's plenty of evidence of it, much of it brand new, but lots more that's been around for years.

The carbon dioxide that comes out of tailpipes and smokestacks can be associated with a lot of compounds in addition to carbon dioxide—sulfur compounds, nitrogen compounds, benzene, formaldehyde and the like—which aren't good for humans or the environment.

Even in places like Hawai'i, where in most places, tradewinds appear to blow the skies clean. More on that later in this article.

“Primary care physicians should be aware of the acute and chronic deleterious clinical effects of diesel exhaust,” says an article in the Journal of Family Medicine, “The Toxicity of Diesel Exhaust: Implications for Primary Care,” dated Jan. 1, 2008.

“Urban air pollution is associated with inflammation, oxidative stress, blood coagulation and autonomic dysfunction simultaneously in healthy young humans, with sulfate and O3 as two major traffic-related pollutants contributing to such effects,” says an article in The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, “The Effect of Urban Air Pollution on Inflammation, Oxidative Stress, Coagulation, and Autonomic Dysfunction in Young Adults,” published in 2007.

A 2004 study found correlations between exposure to auto pollution and both blood pressure and heart rate variability in Brazilian traffic controllers. (European Heart Journal, “Effects of air pollution on blood pressure and heart rate variability: a panel study of vehicular traffic controllers in the city of São Paulo, Brazil.”)

Air pollution is having a significant impact on male fertility, according to a recent study by the Academy of Science's Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine, which looked at the health of Prague police officers who worked outdoors. Many other studies have shown that globally, male sperm counts are down by half over the past century, a reduction linked to pollution, cigarettes, diet and other issues.

A 2005 article in the journal Epidemiology found that kids were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with asthma if they lived hear freeways in Los Angeles. The culprit seems to be compounds from vehicle exhaust.

A 10-year Queensland, Australian, study, just published in the journal Environmental Health Perspective, shows that fetal size and infant birth weight is reduced when mothers are exposed to air pollution.

“"When analysing scans from women at different distances to monitoring sites, we found that there was a negative relationship between pollutants such as sulphur dioxide found in diesel emissions, and ultrasound measurement. If the pollution levels were high the size of the foetus decreased significantly,” said Dr. Adrian Barnett, who helped do the study.

"Birth weight is a major predictor of later health, for example, bigger babies have been shown to have higher IQs in childhood and lower risk of cardiovascular disease in adulthood," he said in a Jan. 6, 2008, press release from the Queensland University of Technology.

Perhaps the interesting thing about this study for people in Hawai'i is that the research was done in Brisbane, a coastal city like Honolulu.

“While some people may think there is no air pollution in Brisbane because the air looks so clean, you have to remember that most air pollutants are not visible to the naked eye, people do have a very outdoor lifestyle, and homes are designed to maximise airflow. So although the actual levels of pollution are low our exposure to whatever is out there is relatively high,” Barnett said.

Folks in Kona know that being coastal isn't enough, since they've lived with pollution, vog, from Kïlauea's eruption for more than two decades. A 2005 article in the journal Geology, Oregon State researchers reported sulfur dioxide levels in Ka'u were sufficient to cause lung health problems and were nearly double the standard set by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

For Hawai'i residents, it's also no longer just about our smokestacks, our tailpipes and our volcano.

An indication of the global nature of pollution is that you're breathing Beijing's air. Research is showing that air pollutants are traveling around the planet. Ozone levels higher than EPA standards have been found moving from Asia to the Americas at high elevation. West Coast instruments have detected the byproducts of combustion in Asia.

“Pollution from megacities and biomass burning, including precursor gases to hydrogen oxides such as acetone and formaldehyde, lofted into the troposphere...these compounds transported great distances before descent, possibly influencing the chemistry of remote regions,” said Penn State meteorology professor William Brune, after taking measurements over Hawai'i and other Pacific regions and finding pollution from industrialized nations to the west of us.

At some level, this discussion recalls the “tragedy of the commons,” which suggests that we will ignore long-term, widely dispersed bad things in our drive to grab immediate, personal, short-term gains.

In view of all this, one wonders how the owners of megahomes and urban tanks justify their behavior:

I've heard these arguments:

“To hell with the rest of the world, this makes me feel safe;” and “I can afford this, and that's what matters;” and frighteningly, “I don't believe in global warming and I don't care about pollution, and I'm making a statement.”

It's easy to blame them, because their behavior is a toxic drag on the community.

But how about the behavior of those of us who drive more fuel efficient cars, who live in moderate-sized homes and who use compact fluorescent lighting. Is our overall behavior adequate in other respects?

If it's not, this is what we're saying: “I'm clueless, and I don't care enough to get one.”

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate


another treehugger said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peter Kay said...

Jan, I think that demonizing folks that live in the modern world is disappointing.

I'd like to know what you are in favor of, other than going to back to a pre-industrial lifestyle.

For example, would you be in favor of nuclear powerplants in the US to deliver > 80% of our electricity, like France?

What exactly are you saying here? Stop driving cars? Certainly today's autos are far more efficient than those of only a few years ago. So are you saying we should all buy new cars?

Or are you implying that people that need to buy large cars only do so because they don't care about the rest of the world?

This type of commentary, in my opinion, does little good and further polarizes each camp, making a collaborative solution very difficult for both sides to deliver.

Jan T said...

Thanks for the comment, Peter.
My own view is absolutely not that we need to go pre-industrial, but the opposite--that we should take a giant step into the future.
What's interesting to me is that we already have the technology to improve our situation, and aren't using it. In fact, a portion of our community seems to aggressively reject it.
We have fuel-efficient automotive technology, but in fact, U.S. autos are NOT far more efficient than they were a few years ago.
(See this: While our engines have been getting more efficient, we've been driving bigger cars. Our average auto fuel efficiency in the U.S. (including cars and light trucks, the SUV category) is in the low 20s, while Europe's is in the low 40s. And the new federal energy legislation is only trying to push us into the 30s by 2020. That's movement in the right direction but it's not aggressive movement.
At home, we could dramatically cut power demand without impacting lifestyle at all. Water heating is just one example. On Kauai, the utility says its employees have gotten solar water heaters (which can cut your home power use amazingly)into virtually every home where people are willing to do it, but it's still a minority of homes.
I'd be interested in your thoughts on how you reach a collaborative solution with folks who refuse to use appropriate technology.

Peter Kay said...

I love this kind of dialog. Great stuff! I come at things from an economic perspective in that instead of coming up with things to force people, you have to incent them.

And regardless of whatever approach one uses, there are ALWAYS tradeoffs. Those tradeoffs need to be recognized and clearly understood before making any big moves.

In regards to big cars and reducing water heating energy, one way to understand this is to look @ the economics/incentives.

Big cars make people feel safer and offer more functionality than small cars. One of our cars is an SUV (6cyl!) and though we've often thought of chucking it, it's still the car of choice to haul our bikes, kids, dogs, surfboards, etc.

Higher fuel prices are already having their impact on the large SUV market, so one thing to *consider* would be to increase the surcharge/gas guzzler tax to further encourage higher fuel efficiency on these vehicles for those that must have them, and to encourage others to consider alternatives (e.g. I'd love a 4 door version of the Honda Element).

On the hot water thingy, what's my incentive to go solar? I don't know what the current tax credit status is but that did a lot to move folks to it. I'd be curious to know what the trendline is on solar water converstions in Hawaii. Is it flat? Down? Up?

Finally, history has proven time and time again that the market will find solutions when there are market conditions that demand it. The delicate art/science is to come up with proper economic incentives that let natural forces do what they do.

Why is Europe's fuel economy so high? It's because their fuel prices are astronomical compared to ours.

As far as taking a bold step into the future, I'd be interested to hear what you think about nuclear power. That's a solid step into the future, no?

What's wrong with a vision of a future Hawaii where we use electric cars, like GM's upcoming (2010) Volt, that gets recharged from a Nuke-powered HECO grid? That sounds pretty good to me.

Major automakers have said their next-generation hybrids can recharge off house current. If we take steps to enable competition for power generation, lowered electricity costs would make cars like this a dream come true for commuters: you could essentially drive the whole week without using a drop of gas by recharging both at home & at the garage.

I'd particularly like to hear what you think about a nuke plant. I know the very thought of nuke power in Hawaii is an anathema to environmentalists, but France's record seems to indicate otherwise. This potential solution would also bring carbon emissions to zero. Seems like the solution is staring us right in the face.

Peter Kay said...

you tell me: economic incentive or forced legislation?

Of course, its economic incentive. The only thing that can beat the power of the market is terrible legislation.

You want to go clean? Make sure it "adds up" and then let mother nature (the market) take over.

Jan T said...

One problem with economic inventives is that some folks won't use them. Solar water heating is a fine example. Even without tax credits, in most cases a solar water heater pays for itself in three to five years; with the incentives much more quickly. After that, hot water is free and power bills are significantly lower. Yet the market penetration is only something like 25 percent in single family homes.
Because the societal (as well as individual) benefits are so great, I suspect the next step will be to mandate their installation on all new homes.

Peter Kay said...

Not all economic incentives are good ones. What might be the reason people would not be interested in going solar? Is it perhaps because of the higher initial cost?

So while, yes, the long-term results *might* work out (and I say might I'm unclear about the cost of maintenance), it still doesn't make economic sense to many folks.

Otherwise, what reason might there be? Why *wouldn't* someone want to buy a heater that's cheaper to buy and cheaper to use?

Pat said...

Jann, has there been a precipitous drop in the Myna Bird population on Kauai. My flock is missing.