Air Pollution: A Lurking Issue

This article was originally published in our Spring 2019 print issue.

Pollution and climate change have been hot topics in public discussion for many years. They’re often used as buzzwords in popular media and literature, but they conceal pressing issues that often go unnoticed, lurking just beneath the surface. Air pollution is a major industrial byproduct, and many don’t realize the major effect it has on their communities and health.

Air pollution is more detrimental to our societies than media often portrays. Polluted air is the result of chemical compounds, such as sulfur dioxides and nitrogen dioxides, being released into the atmosphere and mixing with water particles and oxygen. As air and water pollution increase, the risk for secondary issues such as acid rain increases. Burning fossil fuels also releases pollutants, contributing heavily to air pollution and its spillover effects. Air pollution harms a wide range of communities and environments, including the decimation of animals and plants in and around bodies of water, the destruction of trees and their leaves due to acid rain fog, the leaching of nutrients from the soil, and crop destruction. It also increases incidence rates of respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, and other lung problems.

The detrimental effects of air pollution extend further than just wildlife. An 1980 analysis by the National Crop Loss Assessment Network, set up in cooperation between the government and advocacy groups, discovered that 90% of crop losses are due to air pollutants like sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxides. At that point in time, air pollutants affecting crop growth resulted in a $2 billion loss in those crop industries.

Air pollution’s toll on human health has been heavy; people of color are disproportionately affected by air pollution. A 2017 study demonstrated that, in 2000, non-white populations across the country were exposed to 40% more nitrogen dioxide than white populations. In 2010, this percentage had decreased to 37%. A health report published by the City of Berkeley Public Health Division in 2018 showed that rates of hospitalization due to asthma in children under 5 as a whole has been on a slow decrease since 2000. However, in African American children under 5, rates of hospitalization due to asthma have skyrocketed since 2011 and occur in astronomically higher numbers than for any other race.

The highest concentration of hospitalizations due to asthma occur in a path following the I-80 freeway. Berkeley city officials name air pollutants as a major contributor to increased rates of asthma occurrence and hospitalization due to asthma. In Richmond, California, a community that is 48.8% African American, residents have faced many environmental health issues, stemming from the Chevron plant in the city. In 2009, 34% of adults who lived in the city longer than 15 years had asthma. That same year, the rate of asthma among children was 17%, double the national average. 

Despite this foreboding information, the severe effects of air pollution receive little media attention. The issue itself gets little screen time in the 24-hour news cycle. This begs the question: why should people care? From a public health perspective, reducing the number of cases of respiratory diseases linked to acid rain could save the U.S. $50 billion a year in healthcare visits and treatment costs. Rates of mortality, morbidity, and emergency visits would drastically drop if air pollution and its effects were addressed and minimized.

However, Dr. John Battles, professor of forest ecosystem management at UC Berkeley and researcher at the Battles Research Lab, stresses that people should care about this issue because fundamental human rights are being violated. There is a disproportionate impact of air pollution on people of color, and Battles says, “There are fellow humans out there, even living in the same neighborhoods [as us], who are disproportionately impacted.” People should care because the most disadvantaged communities suffer the most, and companies that benefit from operating the way they do pay no cost to society to minimize or eliminate the effects of their actions.

However, Battles does not see the issue of air pollution as hopeless. He raises the example of acid rain, once a major problem for the United States that, as a country, we were able to tackle. Acid rain has been proven to occur with increased vehicle emissions and air pollution, but Battles says that the decrease of emissions over time, with regulations like the 1990 Clean Air Act and California’s cap-and-trade program, has greatly reduced the prevalence and effects of acid rain. Sulfate and nitrate emissions dropped 30% and 50%, respectively, with clean air regulations, and the National Atmospheric Deposition Program has collected data showing that the concentrations of acid ions in rainwater has decreased correspondingly.

The Acid Rain Program operated by the Environmental Protection Agency is a continuation of the Clean Air Act. Its goal is to establish requirements for the power sector to vastly reduce emissions of sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxides. In 2017, this program forced SO2 emissions down to almost a quarter of what they were in 1990 and decreased NOx emissions down to about a third of what they were in 1990. While acid rain is not an issue we have completely solved, strong regulation and legislation has been proven to control it and set up a cleaner future. 

People can also tackle air pollution in their own lives by making the switch to alternative, renewable energy sources. Driving cleaner, “greener” cars would make a great impact on the emission of environmental pollutants. Battles suggests holding industries accountable by reevaluating our use of products made irresponsibly. He also recommends rethinking our transportation behavior and our ecological footprints. But the task of battling air pollution cannot fall on the shoulders of the public alone. Industries have to be held accountable at a state and federal level. It is incredibly important to push for legislation that advocates for stronger industrial regulation codes to curb pollution emissions and holds private corporations responsible for these environmental health consequences is incredibly important in protecting our futures.