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4. Air Everywhere.
Your air quality is my air quality. And everyone else's.
One of things we like to say in the air pollution research community, especially when we are talking about air quality regulations, is that air pollution knows no boundaries. It moves where ever it wants to go. And it could care less about borders.
That’s why I can always tell when my neighbor is having barbeque for dinner.
Mixing it Up
Every hour of the day, the sun rises somewhere on earth, bringing new heat to the planet. While many people are just waking up, the warming air has already begun its rise up into the sky. In its place, new air moves in, beginning a choreographed dance of air moving up, and new air moving in. It is always mixing, from side to side, and down and up.
There are times when this air mixing doesn’t happen. These are called inversions, and they usually occur during the coldest times, like dark winters in locations with lots of hills and mountains, when air is trapped near the cold surface. All of the pollutants are trapped there, too, and it’s one of the main reasons why events like the London Smog, or Donora PA caused many people to become sick, and thousands to die.
But for the most part, air eventually moves on. And with it goes the pollutants we inject into the atmosphere. These come from car tail pipes, powerplant stacks, smoky wood stoves, cigarettes, smelly trash cans, and dusty construction sites, to name a few. These pollutants are simply whisked away. But away is not gone, and they have to go somewhere.
Our Air is Connected
Because our air is connected, your exposure to air pollution is partially determined by whether you are upwind or downwind of a pollution source. Whether or not you get sick from this exposure is a function of how long you were downwind, whether the pollution was concentrated or dilute, and a whole range of socioeconomic and genetic factors that might make you more susceptible.
When I moved to my house more than a decade ago, previous neighbors had dumped years and years of yard waste onto our new property. It took weeks of hard work to grind up those sticks and leaves and root balls. I was a bit miffed that someone piled their yard debris on my side of the property line. This is my house - keep your garbage on your own property. But we often seem to take a more tolerant view of air quality - even if these pollutants migrate into your personal environment, we seem to just shrug our shoulders and accept it.
While no one owns the air, we all share it. When we emit pollutants, they start to move somewhere else, driven by local meteorology. My backyard bonfire sends smoke and ash into my neighbor’s yard, and down the street, and to the next town over Sure, it starts to become more dilute, but we know that even the lowest levels of exposure can have health effects, especially in vulnerable populations. This is why, in my field of work, we worry about these communities.
My argument isn’t for us all gather for s’mores over the solar-powered LED lamp. But it is one that asks for recognition that we are all linked together by the air we are obligated to breathe. I’m no economist, but I know there is value in clean air - social value - that can, and is, degraded when we pollute.
Clean Air and Communities
Part of our acceptance of this nuisance is because we do a pretty poor job factoring in the social costs of our decisions, especially when it comes to air. That new powerplant might spew pollution into downwind communities, but is often a trivial factor in assessing community burden.
Maybe it is because air is invisible (or at least should be) that we fail to account for its real social value when making decisions on where polluters can operate. Or perhaps polluters sow enough doubt and uncertainty into the receiving community where they are convinced to not see the risk. But it could also be that those communities are often marginalized and lack the ability or a voice to speak up.
Or maybe it is because we don’t care. Maybe we think it’s okay that some among us will suffer because they they have different skin color, or a lower level of income or education, or made an affirmative choice to live in these conditions and take on this risk. That someone consciously elects to endanger themselves and their families by living downwind of polluters.
I refuse to believe that.
Air pollution sources aren’t going away any time soon, even with a growing global recognition that this poses a risk to our health. The rapid electrification of cars and trucks is certainly a step in the right direction, but our electrical grid is still dominated by air polluters like coal, oil, and gas. Renewables, like wind, solar, and hydro have little-to-no air pollution emissions, but are still a small fraction of electricity production.
This means that emissions that used to come from your gasoline-powered tailpipe are simply shifted to smokestacks located somewhere else. Which also means this air pollution burden is borne by someone else.
In my town, there are lots of electric vehicles driving around, and I routinely see a particular car where its owner painted a boastful ‘zero emissions’ on the rocker panel of the car. That statement might be true in the owner’s driveway, but not for someone who lives downwind of the powerplant that produced those non-zero-emission electrons.
The Persistent Dilemma
There is no simple solution here. It would be terrific if we could flip a switch to renewables, but that won’t happen any time soon, and it will take time to make meaningful progress. But during that time, people will continue to suffer. Pollutants will waft into backyards and playgrounds and schools and impact communities and people everywhere. And we still don’t assign a meaningful value to clean air.