Deadly Air In America’s Heartland
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. 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.
- 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.