Toxic Air: The Health Risks of Pollution

Some people argue that climate change is a left wing conspiracy intended to scare people into willingly accepting a new enviro-tax called cap and trade. Yet it shouldn't take a scientist or prophet to know that controlling our carbon emissions is about a lot more than climate or taxes. The carbon we emit from our tailpipes, wood stoves, furnaces, factories and power plants is black and sooty and damages our health whenever we breathe it in.

While CO2 has grabbed all the headlines, carbon black particles are the backstory that is making the most immediate impact. And while we have taken steps to control pollution, we are driving more miles per capita and there are more of us so that we continue to fill up this fish bowl with particles and gases that threaten public health. Building new highways has been likened to an obese person loosening his belt. All we are doing is making room for more consumption (driving or eating as the case may be), a non-sustainable fix because we will just consume to the limit and end up with clogged arteries down the road. And of course atmospheric belt loosening is not possible; there is no extra space to put our carbon emissions.

Recent studies have shown that our carbon fallout onto polar snow is a major driver of melting ice caps. Fine particles can travel long distances and even though the snow up north doesn't look as black as second-day snow in New York City, it's still losing its luster; it's not as reflective. One scientist said that each particle is like a little oven concentrating the sun's heat on a single spot. If you doubt that this is leading to melting ice caps, just ask the polar bears and the shipping interests -- the latter are taking advantage of the open polar seas to ship goods over shorter routes but at the same time spewing their sooty diesel emissions onto the fragile ice pack. It's a classic example of unintended snowballing consequences that can only hasten the melting and overall global warming trend.

Carbon's fallout on public health hits us right here in our cities and suburbs. A study just reported out of Montreal shows an association between living in parts of the city with more traffic pollution and a doubling of the breast cancer risk. And that's Montreal, a relatively clean city.

We can't blame runaway growth in China or India for this. A large body of evidence shows that fine particulate matter adds to the death toll in our elderly and infirm by making their heart and lungs work harder, a stress that is enough to push some over the edge. Bad air days damage one's lungs, and increases the risk for childhood asthma and a variety of respiratory ills across the population. Unfortunately, most people know more about bad hair days than bad air days.

The health consequences of carbon emissions have been known for nearly 20 years. The regulatory response has been cleaner cars, cleaner wood stoves, cleaner smoke stacks. While these fixes have helped, they are of the belt-loosening variety, giving us more leeway to keep expanding our carbon consumption without precipitous health consequences. But it's a losing battle as our consumption has caught up and we are polluting the airways and the ice caps at unprecedented levels.

Clearly the better fix is something that cuts into our culture of unhealthy consumption, that resets our priorities towards conservation and cleaner fuels. Putting a price on carbon is a reasonable, market-driven way to tackle this problem. Building the pollution cost into the price of our Chilean produce, shoes from China, gasoline and electricity will encourage more local production and maybe we won't buy so many gigantic flat screen TVs or SUVs. While carbon is the most obvious pollutant to receive a price tag on, pricing the pollution associated with consumer goods across the board is a way to change the culture and drive demand in more sustainable directions. For example, if the groundwater pollution and health risks associated with pesticides used on corn were monetized, perhaps we would more fully appreciate the cost of burning corn as a biofuel. Maybe organic produce would be more competitive in the marketplace.

All this sounds costly and like a regressive tax to the consumer. It doesn't have to be. There will be a sizeable carbon windfall -- a revenue stream; what we do with it will make or break the concept. If we use it to promote wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, conservation and mass transit, and make these choices "too cheap to meter," we will be putting money back into people's pockets and protecting public health. Fossil fuels is a dinosaur industry on its way to extinction; burning things for heat and propulsion are cave man concepts. Pricing carbon is a sensible way to part with old ways that don't work anymore.