The Air That We Breathe
Take A Deep Breath
Raymond O. West, M.D., M.P.H.
My friend knew that his family had lived too long in the Los Angeles Basin when his pre-teen daughter announced one day, "I don’t trust my air when I can’t see it." Of course, she was talking air-pollution and she was being cute. Whether in Los Angeles, Houston, Baltimore or Boston, air pollution is far from cute. At least not when it is so thick that you can practically weigh it.
Several centuries ago it was soot on the ceilings of prehistoric caves. Today it’s grit on the glossy finish of cars left out overnight in Beverly Hills. Several decades ago, the city of Los Angeles had no garbage pick-up, so each home burned the trash in a back yard incinerator. Now there was air with an attitude. Back yard burning is banned today, but still the air remains translucent. Why?
Nowadays, it’s buses and cars, overbearing trucks and overflying jets. It’s the internal combustion engine and the end gasses of fossil fuels. Results are---carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), Sulfur compounds and nitrogen. Remember acid rain? That’s sulfur, mingled with water to form sulfuric acid.
It’s true that we don’t experience many acute episodes, like the1948 disaster in Donoro, Pennsylvania when more than 1/3 of the inhabitants were felled and 18 persons died. But aerial garbage still corrodes our outdoors metal fixtures, debases the paint on our homes and blights our flowers, trees and crops. In early-century Boston, so heavy was the winter smoke that sunrays were blocked and vulnerable children ran short of vitamin D. The upshot was the soft bones and bowed legs of rickets.
Rumor contends that emergency rooms are crowded with wheezing asthmatics and emphysema sufferers, when the ozone levels intensify. Our kids cough with bronchitis, even have more earaches where the air is tainted. Burning eyes and throats are not uncommon, and tired hearts may simply give up when bad air requires labored breathing. Air pollution is no time for "cartwheels."
Is no one watching the store? Is our thin canopy of atmosphere deteriorating while we saturate it with lead and asbestos and radon gas? Bring on the EPA (environmental protection agency) This often maligned agent of the Federal Government is on the job day and night summer and winter, and they tell us that our air quality had significantly improved over the past 2 decades. They should know for they measure pollution levels over many cities, even some rural acreage.
Some months ago the mile high city of Denver reported ghosts of dust jet-streamed from far away Mongolia. Several years ago Mt. St. Helens spewed megatons of ash over Eastern Washington. No, we can’t always control these natural sources of air silt and soot, but we have already been successful in scrubbing the lead from gasoline. Must we resort to electric cars and trucks and busses to clear the sulfur, nitrogen and carbon monoxide? Maybe. But of this we can be sure---Mother Nature is simply great at cleaning up after man’s depredations providing we will only give her a chance. And she will appreciate any help that we might choose to give her!
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