Let’s have less hot air, more clean air.

I find it interesting that while we all breathe the same air, liberals like the air as clean as possible while conservatives don’t seem to mind getting a daily dose of pollution. Air pollution from power plants has been considerably reduced during the past couple of decades, but conservatives tout the EPA rulings that mandate clean air as “job-killing.”

As shown by Drs. Julia Kravchenko and Kim Lyerly of the Duke University Medical Center, the reduction in air pollution that followed the Clean Smokestacks Act in North Carolina has resulted in significantly fewer deaths from respiratory illness. Overall, the social costs ancillary to the generation of electric power amount to $330-970 billion each year in the U.S., largely for added health care.  Globally, air pollution is estimated to cause 3.3 million premature deaths each year.

Air pollution respects no political boundaries, so power plants in the Midwest send their nitrogen oxides (NOx­) eastward, where they contribute to the formation of ozone and acid rain. Ozone is a well known health hazard for humans, by its link to cardiovascular disease, stroke, and respiratory ailments. The link between NOx emissions and nitric acid in rain is direct; NOx is now a major source of acidity in rainfall in New England.  In a bit of serendipity, in pursuit of lower CO2 emissions from power plants, it is estimated that increased use of natural gas, rather than coal, has reduced emissions of NOx and SO2 by 40 and 44%, respectively.

Nitrogen fertilizers, while they increase crop productivity, result in the release of substantial quantities of ammonia from agricultural soils to the atmosphere. Recent work shows that the emissions of ammonia, from agricultural activities in the Midwest are responsible for atmospheric particulates, which impact human health in the eastern U.S.  As much as half of the economic benefit that accrues from agricultural exports from the Midwestern states is negated by increased health costs in the East.  Agricultural emissions of ammonia are not currently regulated by the EPA; let’s hope that changes soon.

As we watch the hopeful State, Congressional and Presidential candidates line up over the coming year, we should look carefully at their values. No voter is happy out-of-work, but no one is happy with chronic respiratory or cardiovascular disease either.  And, in many cases the accusations aimed at the EPA seem more motivated by corporate campaign contributions that benefit the rich, rather than any real empathy for the unemployed.

Lest we forget, we all breathe the same air, and it doesn’t come in bottles. I’ll take mine clean.



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Kravchenko. J., I. Akushevich, A.P. Abernethy, S. Holman, W.G. Ross, and H.K. Lyerly. 2014.  Long-term dynamics of death rates of emphysema, asthma, and pneumonia and improving air quality.   International journal of COPD 9: 613-627.

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Likens, G.E., D.C. Buso and T.J. Butler. 2005. Long-term relationships between SO2 and NOx emissions and SO42- and NO3 concentrations in bulk deposition at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, NH.  Journal of Environmental Monitoring 7: 864-968.

Likens, G.E. 2013. Biogeochemistry of a Forested Ecosystem.  3rd ed., Springer-Verlag, New York.

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Shindell, D.T. 2015. The social cost of atmospheric release. Climatic Change doi: 10.1007/s10584-015-1343-0