Smog, health, and politics
Just about a century ago, in 1905, a new word - smog -
was coined from "smoky fog", describing the phenomenon
characteristic of big cities in Britain, particularly London.
Back then, little was known about the relation between smog and
health. Despite plenty
of research on the subject, what has been
learned so far had very hard time to reach the public and - more
importantly - to be used in establishing federal and state
Wouldn't you think that inhaling smog is not good for your
health? Doesn't look like there is much to think about. Not only
that it contains ozone (O3),
potent irritant damaging lung tissue, but also
particulate matter carrying unknown number of
carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and other toxic gases, smoke
and dust. Quite a cocktail, but neither pleasing nor healthful.
Amid mounting evidence of harmful effects of ozone on human
health, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requested National
Research Council (NRC) report on the subject.
The result of this brand new NRC report, made public this
month, isn't much of a news: it confirms that there is a solid
evidence - or, in their own words, "robust statistical evidence
of an association" - of short-term ozone exposure - which was
the focus of the report - and premature deaths. The conclusion
is based on recent studies and research papers.
What is scary, is that the report only considers short term -
less than 24 hours - ozone exposure, and deaths immediately
following the exposure. Consequences of longer exposures, and
long-term effect on health, are yet to be officially established. Also,
while deadly effect of ozone cannot be efficiently separated
from those of other toxic agents contained in smog, they have
not been specifically addressed in the analysis.
In all, things are likely much worse than what the report
indicates. While, according to the report, majority of the
victims are those most vulnerable, with increased susceptibility
to ozone, the susceptibility may not be obvious, or previously
known. Even healthy individuals may suffer consequences.
instance, those exercising
are taking in up to 20 times the volume of air of a
sedentary person, and by so much increase their effective
exposure. Also, the effects of longer exposure on long-term
health and life expectancy of the next most vulnerable group -
children, who inhale up to several times more air than adults,
in proportion to their body mass - have not been evaluated.
Evidently, the NRC report is very limited in its scope, but
its results are insomuch more alarming.
Not everyone agrees with it, though, and among
those is the White House Office of Management and Budget. Bush
administration is downplaying the air pollution threat, trying
to spare industry from expenses that would be triggered by more
strict air quality standards.
Granted, it would be very
difficult to actually enforce better air quality standards,
considering that the majority of air pollution is created by mobile
sources: trucks, trains, buses, automobiles, planes and ships.
They produce precursors of ground-level ozone, organic compounds
and nitrogen oxide (NO), with power-plants being major contributor to
the NO emission. Ground-level ozone is produced through
multitude of chemical reactions initiated by these precursors and
magnified in particular by intense sunlight.
But the fact is - there is
no alternative to protecting
health of the population.
The cost of illness, sick days,
shortened lifespan and lower overall productivity are to be
taken into consideration when considering the cost of reducing
ozone precursor emission. Ground ozone concentration has increased
from 10 ppb (parts-per-billion) in pre-industrial era to nearly
150-200 ppb in today's large urban areas, like Houston and Los
Angeles. But this is still better than concentrations in excess
of 400 ppb recorded back in the 1970s - it proves that
significant improvement in air quality is possible when the
For comparison, current categorization of air quality with
respect to ozone concentration is "good" below 64 ppb,
"moderate" 65-84 ppb, "unhealthy for sensitive" 85-104 ppb,
"unhealthy" 105-124 ppb and "very unhealthy" over 125 ppb.
Interestingly, while the NRC report specifically attempted to
establish threshold to ozone concentration below which the
exposure would pose no risk of death, it was unable to come up
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