O-H-oh-no: Catching My Breath In America’s Most Toxic Air?
    By Holly Moeller | July 27th 2011 10:50 PM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Holly

    I'm a graduate student in Ecology and Evolution at Stanford University, where I study ecosystem metabolics and function. In particular, I'm interested...

    View Holly's Profile
    COLUMBUS, OHIO -- After a full day in and out of airplanes and airports, there’s really nothing like stepping out of the terminal and taking your first breath of unfiltered, unconditioned, unpressurized air.  Sure, the curbside may be cluttered with exhaust fumes, and filled with the noise of honking taxi drivers, but it’s still undeniably fresh.

    Too bad that last Sunday, I took that breath in the state with the worst air pollution record in the country.

    In reality, my first taste of Ohio air was probably not detectably different from any other state.  But the back of my mind was filled with a recently released joint report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Physicians for Social Responsibility: The Buckeye State topped their list of toxin emitters, releasing almost 70 million pounds in 2009 (the latest data that the Environmental Protection Agency has released).  By contrast, runner-up Pennsylvania produced nearly 30% less.  And so I found myself producing one small, involuntary cough.

    The NRDC/PSR report emphasized the role of coal- and oil-fired electricity plants in the release of aerial toxins.  In the United States, 49% of toxic air pollution – including hydrochloric acid emissions, a hearty sprinkle of heavy metals, and three quarters of mercury emissions – comes from electricity generation.  In Ohio, that percentage is 65.  Besides mercury’s well-known mental health dangers, air pollution contributes to cancer, may produce birth defects, and exacerbates a wide array of respiratory ailments.

    That’s why the EPA believes that its proposed “Mercury and Air Toxics” limits will save 17,000 lives within three years of implementation in January 2012.  In that same period, 120,000 cases of childhood asthma will be avoided, and insurance companies won’t have to fork out payments for 12,000 emergency room visits and 850,000 missed workdays each year.

    That is, if the EPA’s proposal is carried out.

    Last February, courtesy of a Republican-led House of Representatives vote, the EPA received a blow to its regulation of cement plant pollution.  (The manufacture of cement releases mercury, particulates, and sulfur dioxide.)  More objections and stalling tactics are sure to interfere with these new regulations, which have been more than 20 years in the making.

    The EPA would also like to tighten restrictions on nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions in 28 states and the District of Columbia, where power plants’ emissions are spilling across state borders into their neighbors’ backyards.  As Texas governor Rick Perry rails against the proposed limits (announced in early July), Congresspeople are drawing up bills to delay their implementation.

    Now, as it attempts to establish the first nationwide regulations for mercury, chromium, and acid emissions from power plants, the EPA faces additional anti-regulation, pro-industry rhetoric, and more rounds of fear-mongering about rising energy costs.  The problem is, no one spares a breath for healthcare savings (or quality of life) when ranting about the horrors extra expenditures will bring American families in this time of economic crisis.

    The nice thing about air pollution, though, is that we can cite lots of studies linking it to health issues.  We can write out balance sheets, crunch numbers, and show the savings produced.  For example, the EPA expects its new regulations to create 40,000 jobs (admittedly, the majority of them will be temporary, as plants upgrade their hardware) and produce $140 billion annually in health and economic benefits.  For every dollar spent to keep a plant within the new limits, the EPA calculates a return of $13 to the American people.

    So why haven’t we jumped at the chance to clean our act?

    Well, let’s not forget that, to a large extent, we already have.  Things have improved dramatically since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1963.  Initial payoffs were phenomenal: people noticed jumps in lake pH and fish stocks as rainwater acidity decreased; businessmen could walk through a city without doubling up in a coughing fit; you could see the sun again where there were once clouds of smog.

    Now comes the hard part: buckling down to address the less tangible, less visible effects by lowering emissions limits still further.  Will our belief in scientific and medical evidence motivate us to finish the job, accepting nothing less than clean air for ourselves and our children?

    I should note that California, at least, made neither the EPA’s list of 29 upwind bad guys, nor the NRDC/PSR’s tally of 20 top air toxifiers.  Our electricity production emits only 4% of the 7.45 million pounds of air pollution the state creates annually.  Even the latter number is small, compared to the whopping 772 million pounds emitted nationally (382 million of that total comes from electricity generation; the remaining 51% comes from chemical manufacture (15%), paper products (13%), and a hodgepodge of other industries compelled to report emissions to the EPA).

    Of course, that doesn’t mean my lungs will be happy to return home in two weeks.  I may not be traipsing around in a city anymore, but the plants around Stanford’s campus find new pollens to tickle my bronchioles every month.  Still, I guess there’s something refreshing about having a “natural” asthma attack.



    First, the anecdotes:

    When I grew up in Northern California (Silicon Valley), the air quality seemed to be quite fine, most of the time.  However, the one time I visited Los Angeles, about latter 70's, I think, I saw the sun set behind the smog at about 4 pm!

    Then, real data:

    Even today, the top five polluted cities, for Ozone, based upon the 2008–20010 8-hour Ozone Design Values are all in California (Los Angeles being #1).  (Texas comes in only 8th and 10th.)  Of course, Ozone is invisible, so it most certainly doesn't account for the "sun setting behind the smog" anecdote.

    For 2008–2010 PM2.5 Annual Design Values, the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles rank 4th and 5th (Ohio and Georgia rank higher).  California does rank a little lower for the 24-hour standard.  (Texas doesn't even make a showing.)

    For 2008–2010 PM10 Expected Exceedances, California takes the top three spots.  (Texas [El Paso] comes in at 16th.)

    So, while Ohio may be bad for a number of air toxics (although Ozone and PM are also considered to be "toxic", at least as far as health effects), California certainly doesn't appear to be coming out smelling like any kind of rose I would care to be smelling.  ;)

    Yes, David, the city air here is pretty terrible.  The only place I've actually "felt my lungs burning" was in LA, where I spent plenty of time as a child.  Whenever we'd gain any sort of elevation, you could look down at the valley and see the layer of smog hanging over the city.  Of course my parents, who went to grad school in Riverside in the late 70's, said those polluted-air sunsets were the most spectacular they've ever seen!

    I have to admit that I was really surprised to see that California didn't make either of the lists.  I think it probably has a lot to do with the emphasis of those lists -- on coal/oil power generation, where CA gets a bunch of electricity out-of-state, and most of its in-state supply from natural gas.  Significant chunks of our electricity also come from nuclear and hydroelectric power generation.

    You stated:
    ... I was really surprised to see that California didn't make either of the lists.  I think it probably has a lot to do with the emphasis of those lists -- on coal/oil power generation ...
    One of the things that never ceases to bother me is the way so much "environmentalism" appears to be targeted not so much at real "problems", such as actual health effects, but appears more intended as a kind of "club" with some intended "industry" target.

    I have been of the opinion, ever since the later 70's, or so, that we—humanity—should be working to get off of combustion energy sources.  At this point, I'm of the opinion that we are long past due making that transition.

    This has nothing whatever to do with CO2, or other greenhouse gases.  It doesn't even have to do with the toxic materials within many fuels.  It doesn't even have to do with the Middle-Eastern aspects of oil based fuels.  It really, fundamentally is founded upon a conviction that we need (and have needed) to "grow up" as far as our energy generation technology is concerned.

    We have had the "next" technology for quite some time.  We just haven't properly taken advantage of it, not really.

    Hydroelectric, wind, and solar can only take us so far—far below what we humans need (in fairness, equity, etc.)—at least without space-based solar platforms.  Geothermal (which, ultimately, is nuclear) is decent, provided one can avoid certain mineralization issues, and can actually exploit such resources in a cost effective way (how far down would one need to drill, in the Eastern U.S., to obtain geothermal? and do we want to turn Yellowstone into a geothermal power generation facility?).  (Supposedly, in Greenland, they have been able to make some progress here.)

    Fusion is still many decades away (though I don't expect it to take us more that 250 years, or so.  ;)  ).  Besides, fusion is almost certain to not be as free of "toxic side effects" as many would like to believe.

    We need something that can effectively carry humanity between present combustion energy sources, up though to fusion power, and beyond.

    Wait, did you just give me more reason to make fun of Ohio???   As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I intend to personally lobby the NSF to get you some sort of grant to continue this important work.
    Becky Jungbauer
    This just gives me another excuse to stay out of Blow-hio. The only redeeming quality I can find in that state is the plentiful service plazas along the turnpike. And for some reason I think Josh is from there, which could either be good or bad for Ohio.