Air Pollution: Preventing That Environmental Domino Effect

We may not be all aware of it but all humans have the right to breathe clean air. As Sierra Club member and environmental activist Tom Politeo emphasized, “The fundamental human right to breathe clean air is as basic as our right to free speech, and it cannot be put on the bargaining table for the greater good”. Lamentably, this right seems to be in jeopardy since pollutants are still continuously being spewed out to harm people unconsciously. In fact, it is a cause of alarm that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) informed that “air pollution and ozone trigger 800,000 premature deaths each year” globally (Knopper 40). Also, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 2 percent of all cancers are attributable to air pollution (WHO, 1997). Literally, we are all slowly dying as most people are unaware of the iniquities of air pollution.

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According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are six major pollutants that pose a threat to air quality: ground-level ozone, particle pollution, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and lead. Although the levels of these six pollutants are consistently declining since the 1980s, the EPA admitted in their latest report that “ground-level ozone and fine particle pollution (PM2.5 – particles with an aerodynamic diameter <2.5 µm) continue to present challenges” in numerous US cities (EPA, 2007). Fact remains that EPA declared in 2004 that “one-third of all Americans — including residents of the District of Columbia, large swaths of Maryland and much of northern Virginia — live in areas with dangerous levels of soot pollution in the air” (Eilperi A20). Eilperi (2004) further reported that most communities located in the East Coast and Midwest failed “to meet the new standard are major cities or counties clustered around power plants, while in Southern California, automobiles account for much of the fine-particle pollution”. In this case, EPA designated these areas as “noncomplying areas”. EPA authorities informed that “if most of the 224 targeted counties and the District can meet the new standard by 2010, at least 15,000 premature deaths would be prevented, along with 75,000 cases of chronic bronchitis and 3.1 million days of missed work” (Eilperi A20).

What’s worse is that human health is not the only thing that is threatened by air pollution. Air pollution causes also serious damage to our environment, as well as plant and animal life. Animals and plant life can also be severely harmed by air pollution that interferes with normal physiological functions. Buildings become darkened and discolored and public works of art and monuments are damaged by contaminants. Unfortunately, today’s advanced technology produces pollutants faster than the scientific community is able to study their results. These by-products may pose serious health problems that are currently unknown.

Air pollution is also a huge contributing factor to global warming. Eyles and Consitt informed that “emissions from fossil fuel combustion continue to influence the trend of increasing annual average smog levels” in North America. They said that “ground-level ozone, which can irreparably harm lung function, is a result of these photochemical reactions and thus a major component of smog. These concentrations are increasing not only in the summer but also in the winter and in rural and urban areas”. Overall increasing temperatures, which have been attributed to some of the same smog-producing pollutants (as well as others) acting as greenhouse gases-have also influenced smog levels. This phenomenon is causing a domino effect because warmer temperatures put increased demands on electrical sources, primarily from the use of air conditioners. In this case, “coal-fired power plants, significant greenhouse gas contributors, will be required to produce more and more electricity” (Eyles and Consitt 35).

Who are the main perpetrators that worsen air pollution? Upon realizing the harmful effects of air pollution, how can air pollution be minimized? What is the future behind all these conditions? As consumers, what can we do? What solutions can be feasible to put a stop to the “domino effect” that air pollution is inflicting on humans, animals, and our environment? These are just some of the questions we will try to tackle in this paper.

The Perpetrators

The website Scorecard.com listed the top polluters in the United States. In the PM10 category (particles with an aerodynamic diameter <10 µm), the top polluters are mostly mining companies, with Owens Corning Fiberglass Corporation in Albany, New York topping them all with 21,096 tons of pollutants each year. The same company also leads the top polluters in the US for the PM2.5 category. For carbon monoxide emissions, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corporation in Ohio, with 335,256 tons, leads the pack of steel and chemical companies that pollute the United States with harmful carbon monoxide.

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With this, the EPA revealed several “enforcement actions” in 2007 to “force major polluters to invest a record $10.6 billion in pollution-control equipment”. If this equipment will be functional this year, “the equipment will prevent 890 million pounds of pollutants from entering the nation’s air, soil, and waterways each year”. Because of the stringent enforcement done by the EPA, the agency announced that “environmental crime cases opened by the EPA had fallen from 471 in 2003 to 305 in 2006 before bumping up about 10% this year, and civil penalties totaled just $71 million, less than half the 2004 and 2005 totals” (Carmichael B5).

However, the problem with polluters is not that they do not merely compose of big corporations and factories. All people with cars and other machines run by fossil fuels are the main source of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions. We should know that carbon dioxide emissions are largely due to the combustion of fossil fuels in electric power generation. Methane emissions, which result from agricultural activities, landfills, and other sources, are the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gases in the United States. In the article by Brown (11 October 2004), he informed that in the last decade the CO2 levels increased on average by 1.5 parts per million (ppm) a year. As the amount of oil, coal, and gas burnt, the levels now skyrocketed to more than 2 ppm in 2002 and 2003. Above or below average rises in CO2 levels in the atmosphere have been blamed for global warming. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (2006), cars and trucks are the significant source (25 percent) of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions and serious efforts are needed to reduce their emissions to deter global warming.

Moreover, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that, in their 2001 assessment, “An increasing body of observations gives a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate system.” The IPCC revealed a Climate Hotmap Website to inform people about the rising global sea level that rose up to 4 to 10 inches (10-25 cm) over the past 100 years. Also, the Climate Hotmap showed a majority of the world’s regions experienced record warmth with a century-long warming trend (1901-1996). Furthermore, many glaciers at lower latitudes are now disappearing, and scientists predict that, under some plausible warming scenarios, the majority of glaciers will be gone by the year 2100.

In this case, we can be all perpetrators who contribute to the increasing air pollution by not choosing the products we buy. For example, when we maintain an SUV, we waste more energy and become a contributor to global warming because it eats up too much gasoline. We should learn how to conserve energy and buy products that are environment-friendly. An alternative to buying SUVs is choosing hybrid and electric cars that use energy efficiently. We should also be aware of companies that do not have environmentally friendly practices. We can help by boycotting their products to force them to adopt “green” practices that would benefit us all. Through intelligent buying, we can help preserve air quality and save our environment for the future.

Green Consumerism

As consumers, we all have big responsibilities, not only to ourselves but to all people, animals, and things around us. When we buy, for example, a car that is not fuel-efficient, we are ignoring the fact that we can be contributors to air pollution. This is the negative side of consumerism because we just consume for our own sake. The fact is that, if we are all indiscriminate consumers, air pollution will worsen each day. As Alan Thein Durbin had informed “high-consumption societies, just as high-living individuals, consume ever more without achieving satisfaction. The allure of the consumer society is powerful, even irresistible, but it is shallow nonetheless”. Indeed, this shallowness can lead us into a bleaker future.

As consumers, we should not remain complacent because serious repercussions will occur to affect our health, our environment, and our future. We should also support the US government is doing its part to apply numerous changes in the Clean Air Act. In 2003, President George W. Bush presented the “Clear Skies” initiative, which “would allow industries to buy pollution credits from cleaner plants as an alternative to installing equipment to reduce emissions” (Cooper 965).

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Although EPA claimed that air pollution levels are continuously declining, “smog levels stalled between 1993 and 2002… despite continued efforts to improve urban air quality”. Cooper is partly blaming consumers when the popularity of “SUVs and other big cars and trucks Americans drive” had gone up. These vehicles “burn more fuel and emit more pollutants than the smaller models that dominated the market in the 1980s”. Also, the “suburban sprawl and inadequate public transportation mean drivers are spending more time behind the wheel, further adding to tailpipe emissions” (Cooper 974). This is why as consumers, we should avoid buying SUVs. We should prefer hybrid and electric cars so that we can help our government curb air pollution.

Although we can see the relationship of consumerism as a contributory factor in air pollution, we can still do something about it. Consumerism is here to stay but we can make it more positive when consumers become aware of the threat of air pollution. We need to become “intelligent” consumers by being warier about the products we buy by supporting “green” products. The promotion of “green” products, such as lead-free fossil products, and activities such as recycling, have become commonplace at present (Connelly and Smith 105). Thus, consumers should realize that they need to push for their rights that include the right to safe products, the right to be informed, the right to choose, the right to be heard, and the right to have sustainable and environmentally safe products. The green consumer avoids products that are likely to:

  • Endanger the health of the consumer or of others; continued
  • Cause significant damage to the environment during manufacture, use, or disposal;
  • Consume a disproportionate amount of energy during manufacture, use, or disposal;
  • Cause unnecessary waste, either because of over-packaging or because of an unduly short useful life;
  • Use materials derived from threatened species or from threatened environments;
  • Involve the unnecessary use of – or cruelty to – animals, whether this be for toxicity testing or for other purposes;
  • Adversely affect other countries, particularly in the Third World (Elkington and Hailes 5).

There is no doubt that consumerism can be very powerful, but we need to advocate the good side of it. Through a realization that our purchasing power can have an impact, we can support being “green” consumers and we can make a change for the better. In short, we can become more empowered individuals when we support green consumerism. We should avoid being indiscriminate shoppers, who do not care about the products we buy can indeed harm our environment.

What Lies Ahead in the Future

Ultimately, the government, businesses, and consumers need to join hands in cleaning up America’s air for the future. As the US government is tweaking up the Clean Air Act, they should heed the clamor of environmentalists about air quality. Although environmentalists laud the EPA with the improvements in our air quality, technological advances and state and local air-pollution standards targeting smoke, soot, and other emissions still need to be monitored regularly (Jasper 18). The local government should also do its part in the long-term by requiring car manufacturers to produce air-friendly cars. For example, “California’s Air Resources Board, which sets clean-air and auto-emissions rules for the state, declared that by 2012-2014, they want the ‘Big Six’ car makers to produce at least 58,333 plug-in hybrid vehicles, along with up to 7,500 ‘pure zero-emission vehicles’ — essentially fuel-cell vehicles or hydrogen-fueled combustion cars such as the BMW Hydrogen 7 — or 12,500 battery-electric vehicles with a range of at least 100 miles” (White D2). When they set requirements to produce cars that regulate the use of fossil fuel, there will be hope for cleaner air in the future.

On the side of businesses, companies should allot an ample budget to improve their operations to become environment-friendly. For example, Wal-Mart is further improving its operations to become more environment-friendly since 2000 by teaming up “with WorldWise to help people celebrate Earth Day every day”. By forging a dynamic partnership, Wal-Mart and WorldWise brought “environmentally conscious products into the mainstream of consumer shopping habits” (Wal-Mart Press Release, April 2000). In 2005, Wal-Mart takes a step further in testing an experimental Wal-Mart Supercenter in Denver, Colorado that can be run by wind turbines and solar panels. In 2006, Wal-Mart formally instigated “an aggressive program to encourage “sustainability” of the world’s fisheries, forests, and farmlands, to slash energy use and reduce waste, to push its 60,000 suppliers to produce goods that don’t harm the environment, and to urge consumers to buy green” (Fetterman, 25 September 2006). In this case, companies will exhort people to do their part in improving air quality and preventing air pollution and global warming buy offering more “green” products to buy.

On the part of the consumer, people should learn how to conserve the little resources that we have in order to promote cleaner air. On the individual level, the U.S. EPA Global Warming Website suggested what people can do inside their homes, outside in the yard, when at the store, while on the road, and even when considering major investments. For example, by cutting our utility bills in purchasing energy-efficient appliances, fixtures, and other home equipment and products. The average house is responsible for more air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions than an average car. The EPA Global Warming Website claimed that these suggestions are smart money-savers to reduce your use of energy and the resulting emissions of carbon dioxide — a major contributor to global warming-and other atmospheric gases that trap the heat of the Earth. Even if we do only about one-third of the actions on their list, we can reduce your emissions of heat-trapping “greenhouse gases” like carbon dioxide by 12,280 pounds per year.

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Unless we want to choke to death because of toxic air and be affected by the scary scenario of global warming, people should start now in improving America’s air quality. When we do not start to clean up our air, the “domino effect” looms ahead and we might not prevent horrible repercussions from happening any more. As a famous saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, we need to do these simple things now so that we will prevent terrible things from happening in the future.

Works Cited

Carmichael, Bobby. “Polluters to spend $10.6B to clean up; EPA touts gains; others want more”, USA Today, (2007): B5.

Cooper, Mary H. “Air Pollution Conflict.” The CQ Researcher (2003): 965-987.

Durbin, Alan Thein. “ The Dubious Rewards of Consumption”. New Renaissance, 3.3 (1992). 2008. Web.

Eilperin, Juliet. “Areas With Dirtiest Air Named; D.C., 20 States Must Devise Ways To Reduce Soot”, The Washington Post (2004): A20.

Elkington, John and Hailes, Julia. The Green Consumer Guide, London: Gollancz, 1988.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Latest Findings on National Air Quality – Status and Trends through 2006, 2007. Web.

Eyles, John and Consitt, Nicole. “What’s at Risk?” Environment. 46.8 (2004): 24-41.

Fetterman, Mindy. “Wal-Mart Grows ‘Green’ Strategies; No. 1 Retailer Embraces Environment, But Some Say It’s Just ‘Green-Washing”. USA Today, 2006. Web.

Jasper, William F. “Nurturing Nature”, The New American, 23.16 (2007): 17-21.

Knopper, Melissa. “Something in the Air”, E: The Environmental Journal, 19.3 (2008): 40-41.

Politeo, Tom. “The Right to Clean Air”, Southern Sierran (2004). Web.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Global Warming Site. 2008. Web.

Wal-Mart Press Release. “Wal-Mart Goes Green for All Seasons”, 2000. Web.

White, Joseph B. “Eyes on the Road: Drive for Plug-Ins Poses Challenges”, Wall Street Journal (2008): D2.

World Health Organization (WHO). Health and Environment in Sustainable Development, WHO, Geneva, Switzerland: WHO, 1997.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Climate Hot Map. 2008. Web.

Brown, Paul. Climate Fear as Carbon Levels Soar. The Guardian (2004). Web.

Union of Concerned Scientists (2006). Global Warming. 2008. Web.

Scorecard. “Facilities with Emissions of Criteria Air Pollutants”. 2008. Web.

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