Air pollution is scarier than ghosts and goblins

It’s comforting for parents to know that all the most frightful aspects of Halloween — even candy corn — will be an afterthought come Nov. 1. All the candy will either be devoured, hidden away for rationing, or shipped off to the troops.

But air pollution lingers, long after the last jack-o-lantern has collapsed into itself.

manhattan smog

Photo by Andy Blair

Dirty air harms the most vulnerable among us, especially children. And even though air quality is unquestionably better than it was in decades past (at right is Manhattan in 1966), it’s still unacceptably bad in many places.

The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2017 report says 38.9 percent of Americans (125 million people) lived in counties that had unhealthful levels of air pollution between 2013 and 2015. That’s down from 52.1 percent (166 million people) during the last reporting period. But the report noted an “unrelenting increase in dangerous spikes in particle pollution.”

There’s no “safe level” of air pollution, regardless of government-established thresholds. But the tiniest particles are the worst for humans, including the smallest among us. That’s regardless of whether those bits come from tailpipe emissions, a power plant, or smoke from wildfires.

As I wrote in a post about particulate matter in March:

Larger particles are trapped in the nasal passages, and slightly smaller ones make it as far as the lungs, where they can raise the risk of asthma and other respiratory disorders. But sub-2.0 particles pass through the lining of the lungs, into the bloodstream, and to the brain.

The more we learn about air pollution’s harmful effects on children, the more alarming the issue becomes. A report in Britain showed that air pollution from transportation in some parts of cities stunted the growth in the lungs of 8- and 9-year-olds, diminishing capacity by up to 10 percent.

The human body can suffer from the effects of air pollution even when it’s in the womb, according to a new study in JAMA Pediatrics that examined 641 newborns and their mothers in Belgium. Toxins can even seep into homes, and families who live near freeways and busy roads are particularly at risk.

Pollution of all kinds was blamed for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015, “about 15 times more than all wars and other forms of violence,” according to a recent study in the medical journal The Lancet.

Displacing some gasoline as a transportation fuel, in favor of cleaner alternatives like alcohol fuels (ethanol and methanol), would reduce air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions like carbon dioxide.

Despite intense lobbying and advertising by oil companies and other polluters to defeat efforts to use less petroleum, we’re undeterred. So is Moms Clean Air Force, the nonprofit founded in 2011 and which counts more than 570,000 parents as supporters.

“What really resonates with our members is that message of hope,” says Loni Cortez Russell, regional field manager for the group’s Western States region, which includes California. “We can’t tell our children that there’s nothing they can do: ‘I’m sorry, that’s just sort of it.’ So the message we try to relay to our members, and to all of the groups we work with, is that message of hope, and that sounds a little bit kitschy or something, but it really is what keeps us going.

“One of the things we say: We harness mother love, and harness parent love, because there’s a relentlessness to that. You cannot give up.”


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