Deadly Air In America’s Heartland

Healthy Living, PollutionNovember 30, 2018

After California The two fires scorching the state of California earlier this month were devastating. They left in their path economic disruption, incalculable property damage, and loss of life. It will take communities years to rebuild from this. If there is any silver lining to be found in misery hanging over the state, it is the new public consciousness of the danger coming from particulate air pollution. The daily air quality index in San Francisco was besting Beijing, China for the worst in the world. That got people’s attention, and they started asking questions. What is PM 2.5, and what kind of a risk does it pose to me and my family? Hopefully this dialogue will continue after the fires have been extinguished. The problem of poor air quality isn’t going to pass with the fires, and isn’t limited to large urban areas in California. In fact, under normal circumstances the problem of particulate air pollution (PM 2.5) is worst in the Midwest, Upper South, and Northeastern United States.    pastedGraphic.png   Why The Air In The Heartland is Unhealthy The grey triangles on the map represent coal fired power plants. Most of them are located in the area of the United States between the Atlantic seaboard and the Missouri River. Coal is a fossil fuel that forms when dead plant matter is converted into rock by exposure to high temperature and pressure over millions of years. When it is burned it produces energy. So, it is used a source of electricity generation. In a coal fired power plant, the coal is first pulverized, and then burned in a furnace. When the coal is burned it releases its contents into the air as pollution. This includes fine dust, nitrogen and sulfur compounds, as well as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). All of these components aggregated together are measured as PM 2.5. Thus coal air pollution is concentrated in a specific area of the country. The Union of Concerned Scientists attributes the following to coal air pollution:
  • 41.2 tons of lead, 9,332 pounds of cadmium, and other toxic heavy metals.
  • 576,185 tons of carbon monoxide, which causes headaches and places additional stress on people with heart disease.
  • 22,124 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOC), which form ozone.
  • 77,108 pounds of arsenic. For scale, arsenic causes cancer in one out of 100 people who drink water containing 50 parts per billion. 
The Contributions of Industry However, coal burning is not the only reason for heightened air pollution in the northeastern quartile of the United States. This is the epicenter of American manufacturing.   pastedGraphic_1.png   This map details the location of manufacturing and industry in the United States, and it parallels nicely with the one detailing particulate pollution. The industries primarily responsible for air pollution are the petroleum and petrochemical production, the chemical industry, mining, metal production, and food production. These industries try to locate as close as possible to the populations served, so they are a major cause of pollution in high density areas of the United States.    pastedGraphic_2.png  This is made clear in the map plotting air pollution and industry in the city of Chicago, which is the third largest metropolitan area in the United States. Not only does the industrial activity itself generate pollution, it draws diesel trucks which compound the problem. Government agencies have identified the following issues with industrial air pollution:
  • Sulfur dioxide: respiratory symptoms and lung function disturbances especially among risk groups: asthmatic children and adults and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and bronchitis sufferers.
  • Fine Dust: respiratory morbidity and mortality; cardiac morbidity and mortality. Particulates with a smaller diameter cause greater health damage because they penetrate deeper into the respiratory tract.
  • Nitrogen oxides: inflammatory responses in the respiratory system; increased frequency of respiratory symptoms (attacks) among asthmatics and COPD sufferers; damage to fetuses due to exposure by pregnant women.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): carcinogenicity in some of the compounds; damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system; eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; loss of coordination; nausea; shortness of breath; allergic skin reactions; fatigue and dizziness.
An Indoor Problem  So, if you live in the Midwest, Northeast, or Upper Southeastern United States you are at risk for air pollution related health problems. However, restricting your time outdoors will not reduce your risk of exposure. Winter is on the way, and temperatures are dropping in this part of the nation. So, naturally people spend more time indoors where it is warm. But, keeping the indoors warm means running the heater. This create more demand for the electricity produced from Coal, which is a substantial part of the problem. It also brings air from outside into the house. Most air handlers have a thirty percent fresh air replacement rate. This means that up to one third of the air indoors is being replaced with outdoor air at any given time. This is true at home, at work, and other public spaces. Awareness of the problems associated with burning coal and sustaining heavy industry, which are so dangerous to society are starting to generate change. Only thirty percent of America’s electricity now comes from coal, and it is rapidly being replaced with cleaner burning natural gas. And, Industry is being held accountable. However, there is a long way to go before the risk is abated.  Protecting Your Family The solution to this is air purification. Everyone in America’s Heartland should own an air purifier given the ubiquity of coal burning and industrial activity. But there are so many options out there, where does one begin? To start lets address the problem in specifics. What is this PM 2.5 thing that keeps being mentioned in the news and in government warnings? PM 2.5 stands for particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less. A micron is one millionth of a meter, so really small stuff. It is made up of three components: Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Inorganic (no carbon) gasses, and fine dust. So, an air purifier has to have considerable complexity to handle all three components. One single air purification technology simply won’t do. Fortunately there is a product on the market that can manage each of these three components separately.