More people die early from the effects of dirty air each year than of AIDS, diabetes and traffic accidents combined. That’s just one of the startling statistics from the new book, “Choked: Life and Breath in The Age of Air Pollution.” Journalist Beth Gardiner traveled around the world to research the people and policies behind those numbers. In Poland, she saw firsthand how burning coal keeps kids indoors, and in India, how vehicle exhaust is a daily burden for millions. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Gardiner about the book.
Listen to the interview:
Kara Holsopple: As you say in the beginning of the book, when people die, no one thinks of air pollution. And yet, around the world, to varying degrees, air pollution causes the early deaths of 7 million people annually. So why don’t we think of air pollution when people die of a stroke or heart attack?
Beth Gardiner: Well, I think there is this invisibility that people always talk about with air pollution. Part of that is that you often can’t see it. But I think there’s also an invisibility in terms of the difficulty of really connecting cause and effect for us as non-scientists–as the general public. And, in fact, in any individual case, it is very hard to do that. There may be some really extreme situations, but if I have a heart attack tomorrow, that might be because I’ve lived in London for 18 years, and there’s really bad diesel pollution here. But it might be because I don’t go to the gym enough, and also maybe it’s in my DNA. But what is very clear is that on a population level, as the pollution rates go up, rates of all kinds of illnesses–heart attack, stroke, asthma, many kinds of cancer, premature birth, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and even diabetes–goes up. So it is a very direct link, but it’s hard to see it.
KH: Well, let’s talk about some of the places you visited to research air pollution, and illustrate some of the problems. Coming from a region, here in southwestern Pennsylvania, where coal and coal fired power plants are still very much a presence, even I was flabbergasted by the practice of burning coal for heat and electricity in Poland. What impact does that have on Poles, and also on the rest of Europe?
BG: It has a huge effect. Coal is a major part of the air pollution story around the world, and Poland was sort of a window where I saw it. It’s one of the most coal dependent countries in the world. There certainly are coal fired power plants there that they depend on for upwards of 90 percent of their electricity, I think, and that is bad for air quality, for sure. But what is even more egregious are these home stoves where people are burning coal in their houses during the winter to keep warm, and it tends to be lower quality coal. Obviously, a coal fired power plant is not great environmentally speaking, but at least it has some kind of technology–some kind of scrubbers or filtration systems. These home furnaces have absolutely nothing. It’s just raw smoke going out into the air. Because it’s a much lower burning temperature in a home environment, some of the particles that might be incinerated in an industrial smokestack just float right out into the air. You just see these clouds of smoke coming out of chimney after chimney, and they hang over towns. But there is a real sense that it is part of the culture, and part of the history. There’s a lot of mythology around coal, and a sense that it’s what we have as Poles, and can never be taken away from us. A lot of those myths are really not at all grounded in fact, and the economies of modern energy are a lot different. The remaining coal that’s mined in Poland is so deep in the ground that the companies that mine it lose money with every ton that they bring up, every shovelful that they bring up. But nonetheless, it is sort of part of the Polish psyche, and it’s also really seen as the fuel that’s affordable no matter what your economic circumstances. You can feel safe and secure knowing that you’ve got a ton of coal in your basement, where as with natural gas, there’s a fear because a lot of that comes from Russia. There’s a fear of being dependent on Putin. Some of these these things run very deep. But what I did see in Krakow, which was really inspiring, was that a group of citizens and activists there decided a few years ago that they couldn’t bear this anymore. They started taking to the streets, and protesting, and petitioning. Eventually it led to a law passed in the regional legislature, which has just brought in the country’s first ban on home burning of coal. Hopefully that will bring some health benefits to people who live in that city, and maybe it will show other parts of Poland, and other parts of Eastern Europe, that you know there are alternatives.
KH: In the book you say that agriculture is responsible for about half of the man made air pollution in the U.S., which was a surprise to me. You visited the San Joaquin Valley in California, where so much of our food in the U.S. comes from. What did you learn about how air pollution disproportionately impacts some people?
BG: Air pollution affects everyone, but it is really true–whether you’re talking about London or the San Joaquin Valley or L.A. or Pittsburgh–it disproportionately impacts the poor, and it disproportionately impacts people of color and communities of color. That was really on vivid display in the San Joaquin Valley, which is a very economically bifurcated place. You have these huge agricultural companies, and a small number of families who own a tremendous amount of land and the farming concerns there, and then you have a very large population of mostly pretty recent immigrants, many of whom are undocumented from Mexico and Latin America. They are very poor people who are working in the fields as migrant pickers, and who suffer not just from air pollution, but from a whole multitude of other health stressors, whether it’s pesticides they’re exposed to during fieldwork, or water pollution from runoff from some of these chemical fertilizers. As is true everywhere, people who are poor tend to live in more undesirable places. In a big city like L.A. or New York, that would tend to be near highways or near industrial facilities. In the San Joaquin Valley, people who don’t have money to afford better housing live near these huge mega dairies, which have thousands and thousands of cows confined in very small places. You can imagine that there is a big issue with smell, and there are some more unusual contributors, too, like this stuff they call silage. It’s green corn and other cuttings, and it ferments, and that is what ultimately is fed to the livestock. But that fermentation process produces something called VOCs, volatile organic compounds. They’re released into the air, and they combine with pollutants from traffic and from other agricultural operations. One thing that I learned about air pollution in the course of working on this book is that it’s not always the stuff that comes out of the tailpipe, or off the farm that you breathe and it’s harmful. There are a lot of chemical reactions in the air. They call them secondary pollutants. You might not even be emitting the tiny particles that are the most dangerous, but through combination with other pollutants that are emitted, they can form those particles. So for example, ammonia that comes off of farms, and methane, which is a powerful climate pollutant, these things can combine in different ways, and become harmful to our health.
“Cars didn’t get cleaner by accident. Lead was not removed from gasoline by accident. That happened because of a long, hard fight, and it happened because of regulation.”
KH: The Clean Air Act of 1970 is a landmark piece of legislation, remarkable for its bipartisan support. As you say in the book, it’s an example for many countries, including China, which are looking at ways to regulate pollution. But you do voice your concern about the policies of the current Trump administration, and changes happening at the Environmental Protection Agency. What’s your biggest concern there as regards air pollution?
BG: What I came to understand in researching this book is the power of slow, incremental progress, and you know, it has been a slog. But if you look at American air quality now, compared to what it was when I was growing up in the early 1970s, it’s a different world. That didn’t happen by accident. Cars didn’t get cleaner by accident. Lead was not removed from gasoline by accident. That happened because of a long, hard fight, and it happened because of regulation. Looking particularly at the American story when it comes to air quality, it’s really government power, the application of science-based regulation, and the even handed enforcement of it that has brought us this progress over so many years. The Clean Air Act is a remarkable piece of legislation, and there are very rigorous studies that have found that it has literally saved millions of American lives, and trillions of dollars, since 1970. The benefits of all that health, when it comes to health costs and productivity gains, are literally dozens and dozens of times the money that was spent to bring those benefits. But I think that there’s a little bit of a Catch 22, which is that as the air gets cleaner, it loses a political urgency. If you start rolling back those regulations, and you start undermining the agency that brings them to life, and makes them real out in the world, you will go backwards. Living in London where there is a real air quality problem, a lot of it comes down to a failure of enforcement. London and its European neighbors do not have a strong equivalent of the EPA. They don’t have a strong piece of legislation like the Clean Air Act, and that is why the air is so much dirtier. You can literally smell it when you walk down the streets in London, or in other European cities. And I saw it even more vividly when I traveled to places like India and China, which are far worse off than Europe in terms of their air pollution problem. So when I think about what concerns I have, it’s more focused on the sort of bigger picture of the power of the EPA to enforce the law and to make good regulations, and to stay based in science, because that has been the strength of the EPA I think for decades. Its rules are very rigorously grounded in science. I think that the Trump administration, and the EPA appointees and leadership who come very directly from the fossil fuel industry, and are now regulating the industry, they understand that because they have taken aim at the science. They’ve tried to undermine the authority of science. I think that’s pretty dangerous.
KH: A line from the end of your book that really struck me about air pollution is: “This is not an insoluble puzzle, a problem to which we must resign ourselves. We know how to fix it.” So what gives you hope that this will happen, or is happening?
BG: Well, I mean, I don’t always feel hopeful. But I certainly met a lot of people who really inspired me. You know whether it was environmental activists in China, or in Poland, or in California–people who really understand how air pollution is affecting their own health and their neighbor’s health and the health of people they never will even meet. They’re really fighting for change. And I think that understanding the power of air pollution, and the ways that it impacts us, has a greater power than just itself. I do think very much that air pollution is a hugely important issue, and a hugely important story in its own right. But I think it gains an even greater power from its connections to climate change. I still think that climate change can feel sort of abstract and distant and hard to grapple with, and I think air pollution, once you really understand what it’s doing to you and your children and your parents, it’s just more immediate. I think it hits closer to home, and I think in that way understanding it can help us start to think about the changes that we need to make to build a healthier world.
Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution will be released in the U.S. on April 22.