Air Pollution is Nothing New, But It’s Still With Us

Sandra Folzer, Weavers Way Environment Committee

It’s easy to dismiss the subject of air pollution as old news, but it now causes more deaths worldwide than malaria or auto accidents. According to 2016 statistics from the World Health Organization, eight million people die as a result of ambient or household air pollution every year.

In 2016, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, closed streets near the Seine to cars in order to make the banks of the river more pedestrian friendly. She faced a good deal of opposition, but the ban was upheld in court last year.

In Pennsylvania, the natural gas industry vents 520,000 tons of methane every year, according to the Clean Air Council. Methane at high levels causes headaches, dizziness, and vomiting. Children born near gas wells are 40-70% more likely to have congenital heart problems, and cancer rates and stillbirths are more common. Yet, Governor Wolf is promoting Restore PA, which is funded by a severance tax on gas drilling, tying the state to the gas industry for the next 20 years.  

In this country, public pressure helped bring about the Clean Air Act in 1970. While it helped, decades later, air pollution still kills more than 100,000 people in the country every year, according to a report published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Today, the Trump administration is trying to dilute the Clean Air Act, along with a host of other environmental measures. Long-term studies have confirmed that breathing particulate matter shortens lives. Yet, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee is questioning the science. The committee has no epidemiologists among its seven members, all appointed since 2017. The chair, Tony Cox Jr., has no background in health or medicine and has consulted for the American Petroleum Institute.

In October, Bulent Sik, a food engineer and human rights advocate in Turkey, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for publishing a paper linking pollution to cancer. “The court ruling shows that the results of a study that directly concerns public health can be hidden,” he told reporters after the verdict.” This is unacceptable.”

There is another cost for air pollution, which is not apparent. A 10% increase in exposure to air pollution is associated with a 1.4% increase in violent crime, regardless of race, age or socioeconomic status, according to The Economist. This study included 28% of the U.S. population.

So, what do we do? We can’t rely on our politicians, though we can express our wishes. By pressuring lawmakers as a group, activists can make a difference.  As Gary Fuller wrote in his book “The Invisible Killer,” “It is not the invisibility of air pollution that is the problem, but its normalization and acceptance.”