Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 7, 2002
Pollution murders with impunity
That canary in the coal mine is us
By SUSAN ELSTON
My family can predict the weather. My husband Brian and sister Joanne both get migraines when the barometer starts to fall; my mother-in-law's joints ache when it's damp outside. When there's a storm coming, I have one rib that becomes sore and swollen. And if you want to know what the air quality is, just give my mother a call.
As soon as she answers the phone, the rasp in her voice will tell you if it's smoggy or humid. My mother suffers from obstructive pulmonary disease - the end result of a lifetime exposure to second hand smoke and air pollution.
As a child growing up in London, England, my mother and her family lived through the infamous pea-soup fogs - a toxic blend of natural fog and coal smoke. As a private in the British army, mum was the only soldier in her unit who didn't smoke. After the war, my mother met and married my dad - a heavy smoker.
Although my father eventually quit smoking, two of his children (my brother and I) both took up the habit in our teens. I quit 20 years ago, but not before adding to the burden that my mother's lungs were already carrying.
The cumulative effect of all of this exposure has left her with a chronic cough, shortness of breath and an extreme sensitivity to lung infections. Even a mild cold can be life threatening for her.
There was a time, not too long ago, when people like my mum were considered anomalies - rare fragile birds that were too weak, too vulnerable for the challenges of everyday life. Like the canaries that coal-miners used to carry into the pits with them to detect poison gas, their over-sensitivity sounded a distant-warning bell that was noticed, but rarely a source of personal concern.
According to a recent article by the Earth Policy Institute's Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts, "In the United States, traffic fatalities total just over 40,000 per year, while air pollution claims 70,000 lives annually. U.S. air pollution deaths are equal to deaths from breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. This scourge of cities in industrial and developing countries alike threatens the health of billions of people."
Fischlowitz-Roberts notes that while governments go to great lengths to reduce traffic accidents, fine speeders and arrest drunk drivers, they pay little attention to the deaths people cause by simply driving their cars.
Our tailpipes are just one source of carbon monoxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates. Coal-fired electricity generation and industry add to this toxic soup, creating a chain-reaction of health effects.
According to Fischlowitz-Roberts, carbon monoxide slows reflexes and causes drowsiness by reducing the amount of oxygen that red blood cells can carry. Nitrogen dioxide can aggravate asthma and reduce lung function, as well as making airways more sensitive to allergens.
Ozone also causes lung inflammation and reduces lung function and exercise capacity. Smaller particulates, especially those 10 micrometres in diameter (1/2,400 of an inch) or smaller, can become lodged in the alveolar sacs of the lungs. They are associated with higher admissions to hospital for respiratory problems and with increased mortality, particularly from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. As particulate concentrations in the air rise, so do death rates.
While the health impacts are dramatic, air pollution has some serious economic costs as well. In Ontario alone, air pollution costs at least $1 billion annually in hospital admissions, emergency room visits and worker absenteeism.
Fischlowitz-Roberts argues that reducing income taxes while raising taxes on fossil fuels would encourage more efficient fuel use, shifting to clean energy sources and adopting better air pollution control standards.
Simple, immediate personal action includes car pooling, cycling or walking, using mass transit and switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles.
As my mother points out, it is possible to make dramatic improvements to air quality. When a four-day fog in 1952 killed roughly 4,000 Londoners, Parliament enacted the Clean Air Act that dramatically reduced the burning coal, effectively putting an end to London's pea-soup fogs.
Recommended Websites:To read the complete Earth Policy Institute report on air pollution fatalities or for more ideas on how to reduce air pollution in your community, go to www.earth-policy.org/Updates/Update17.htm.
The Ontario Medical Association's report, The Illness Costs of Air Pollution in Ontario is located at www.oma.org/phealth/icap.htm.
To read a history of London's pea soup fogs, visit www.epa.gov/history/topics/perspect/london.htm.
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