Smog of War: Let’s Talk Air Quality
People here in NYC are shedding their coats, making glorious escape plans to greener pastures, and (inadvisably) wearing sandals around Manhattan. Unfortunately, these exuberant times also see the rise of an insidious enemy: smog. This portmanteau for smoky fog was coined to describe severe air pollution common in 1850s London from rampant coal use in combination with the famous fog that trapped those emissions closer to home. The resulting conditions have alternately been called ‘pea soup fog’ (Australia) or ‘London particular’ (oddly also the name they use for a thick pea and ham soup) and is typically of two varieties: summer and winter smog.
‘Summer smog’ (photochemical) is usually the result of pollutants reacting with sunlight in the atmosphere creating secondary compounds (e.g. ozone), which on days with little wind creates a feedback effect with primary emissions (e.g. sulfur dioxide). ‘Winter smog’ (atmospheric inversion) often happens when we are heating homes and weather conditions prevent the hotter air from escaping as it normally would. Making matters worse, our dirtiest energy production typically happens at these times as we utilize ‘peaker plants’ that normally sit idle (these are essentially gas-powered jet engines that we cycle up quickly to meet spiking energy demand).
In the United States, air quality has been backsliding recently after gaining ground since the 1970s and a shocking 43% of Americans are breathing unsafe air according to the American Lung Association. Globally, pollution is linked to 9 million deaths each year, the majority from air pollution, which has a feedback loop as the planet warms and emissions grow. Recent studies are showing that even ‘safe’ levels of pollution leads to higher risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and diabetes. For those of us with a Type II diabetic in the family, it is especially concerning that particulates and air pollution impair, among other things, the body’s ability to produce insulin. Researchers estimate that pollution contributed to 3.2 million new cases of diabetes worldwide in 2016 (14% of all cases that year), and that’s after removing the effects of sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diet, obesity, etc.
So, what can be done? Well, Mexico City, previously notorious for smog, ordered cars off of the road 1 day per week as part of broader reforms and has seen remarkable rebound in air conditions (and tourism).Other cities are restricting vehicle traffic to alternate days based on license plate numbers (although some stubborn motorists in Beijing are using fake plates or those from other provinces to circumvent this). For the worst days, many cities issue air quality warnings but really we need to implement stricter standards on our emissions rather than easing air quality standards (guess who). The technology is there, by providing larger budgets for enforcement and stricter fines for violators we can dramatically decrease air pollutants and clean up our air.
Kellen Parker, Vice President
The American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report gave Philadelphia, DC, Colorado and Indianapolis failing air quality grades, highlighting a big problems for the states as their population grows.
If you’re curious about global air quality, here’s a list of companies that are monitoring that all over the world.
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