Soiled Skies Incite ‘Choked’ Author To Pursue Air Pollution Story 

December 4, 2019

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Beijing during a 2018 air pollution alert. China was among the locales the author visited in order to report on dirty skies around the globe. Photo: SZ, Flickr Creative CommonsClick to enlarge.

Feature: Soiled Skies Incite ‘Choked’ Author To Pursue Air Pollution Story

By Beth Gardiner 

Air pollution prematurely kills seven million people every year, including more than 100,000 Americans. That makes it a critically important story, even if it can be a difficult one to cover. 

The evidence strongly links dirty air to increased rates of heart attacks, strokes, cancer, dementia, premature births and many other ailments. It’s usually impossible, though, to pin down pollution as the culprit in any individual case. 

So as journalists, we have to work hard to make its impact clear to readers, viewers and listeners. And with new data showing American air quality is getting worse after decades of improvement, the story is only growing more urgent. 


Air pollution’s effects hard to grasp

I first encountered the science on dirty air’s health dangers in 2012, when I was working on a story about how pollution in London, where I live, might affect athletes in the soon-to-open summer Olympics. 


I was shocked not only by the scale and variety 

of [air] pollution’s effects, but by 

how little, until then, I had grasped that power.


I was shocked not only by the scale and variety of pollution’s effects, but by how little, until then, I had grasped that power. 

How, I wondered, could an environmental journalist living in a badly polluted city be so oblivious to an environmental threat that was killing thousands of my neighbors every year? My own ignorance made clear to me the difficulty we non-scientists face in making out the contours of this threat. 

“You see one person run over in the street and you’ll never forget it,” one environmentalist told me. But thousands dying from pollution’s effects “will never even faze you.” 

Before long, I was following this story around the world.  I traveled to California, Washington, D.C., China, India and Poland in an effort to give air pollution the global treatment I thought it deserved. 

But while I was convinced the harm pollution was wreaking made it important enough to merit a book, I was unsure whether it could be interesting enough. 


Intersection of inequality, injustice, climate

I soon realized it was. Air pollution intersects with the biggest issues facing our societies: economic inequality, racial injustice, ideological debates over regulation and, of course, climate change. 

This story is not just about numbers. It is about human lives, and also about politics, power and money. 

I ultimately published a book on all this, “Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution,” earlier this year. 

But the expertise on the topic is deep and wide.

For instance, Sandra Ruiz-Parrilla sees the human toll up close. Her Denver neighborhood, Globeville Elyria-Swansea is one of the country’s most polluted

The community, poor and heavily Latino, sits right beside Interstate 70, where an expansion project has brought years of noise, exhaust and dust, on top of the traffic fumes. The area is close to heavy industry and petroleum refining, and the smelting plants in its past have left it with hazardous waste in the form of two Superfund sites and six brownfields. 

“There’s a lot of stories of asthma, cancer, diabetes,” said Ruiz-Parrilla, president of Unite North Metro Denver. Most residents cannot afford to leave. “They have to stay there. It’s sad, because they know what’s getting them sick but they can’t move out.”


Poor, people of color, suffer disproportionately

Around the world, neighborhoods like Ruiz-Parrilla’s suffer pollution’s effects most acutely. The poor and people of color are disproportionately likely to live near major highways, power plants, garbage and recycling facilities, and huge agricultural operations. 

Scientists’ increased focus on the sharp variations in air quality that can occur over even short distances is helping them map these disparities. Research by the Environmental Defense Fund in Oakland, Calif., found pollution levels varied by as much as eight times within a single block. 

Despite continued problems, though, America’s air quality is dramatically better now than it was in 1970, when the Clean Air Act was passed and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created. Decades of steady improvement have literally saved millions of American lives and trillions of dollars, and the benefits have been dozens of times greater than the costs. 

Indeed, I was surprised to learn while reporting “Choked” that air pollution is significantly worse in Europe (may require subscription) than the United States.


Scientists expect the deterioration to continue 

as the Trump-era EPA pushes ahead 

with aggressive deregulation plans.


But that progress is being reversed. And scientists expect the deterioration to continue as the Trump-era EPA pushes ahead with aggressive deregulation plans, and an exodus of scientific and technical staff drains the agency of the expertise essential to effective enforcement. 

Science itself has become a battleground: EPA has disbanded scientific panels (may require subscription) that once advised it on air pollution, replaced scientists with industry representatives on other committees, attacked the widely held consensus on particle pollution’s strong links to illness and death, and rewritten the cost-benefit formulas underpinning regulations.  

It uses the language of science to undermine respected studies. For example, it argues that the demands of transparency mean the agency should not consider research based on large troves of confidential data, potentially disqualifying some of epidemiology’s most important work. 

Science is “the bedrock for our nation’s air quality protections,” said Vickie Patton, general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. Now it is “under serious threat and attack by this administration. And it’s something that could erode the foundations of protections for human health and the environment for generations to come.” 


Wildfire smoke a hazard

Another threat to air quality comes from the wildfires that, because of climate change, are growing more frequent and intense across the western United States and Canada. Smoke blankets large areas for days on end and can drift thousands of miles. 

Wildfire smoke used to bring short-term pollution spikes, but now it is also pushing up annual averages in affected areas, said Emily Fischer, an associate professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University. 

Scientists know smoke contains high concentrations of PM2.5, the tiny particles that penetrate deep into the body. Fischer, who flies through the smoke to study the chemical reactions happening inside plumes, said researchers are trying to determine what other toxins are present. 

“It’s not just one thing. There’s thousands, or tens of thousands of different compounds in smoke,” including benzene and formaldehyde, she said at the recent Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference, held in Fort Collins, Colo., this past October. 

Fischer has also studied ozone pollution from oil and gas extraction in Colorado’s Front Range. She said air that has passed over drilling sites carries the ozone precursors methane, ethane, propane and butane, as well as elevated levels of carcinogenic benzene. 

Pollutants from Front Range oil and gas operations have been found in Rocky Mountain National Park as well as more populated areas, Fischer said. 

Patton emphasized the links between air pollution and climate change, both largely caused by fossil fuels. 

The two problems “are inextricably tied in terms of the sources and the solutions,” she said. And with the Trump administration unraveling rules aimed at addressing both, “the consequences for human suffering are really serious.” 


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Beth Gardiner is a London-based freelance journalist and the author of "Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution."

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 44. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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