Don't Breathe Easy

Don't Breathe Easy
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A recent scientific study discloses that air pollution kills approximately nine million people annually, making it the leading environmental cause of premature death on the planet. But don’t derive any comfort from the fact that the aforementioned pollution victims reside predominantly in developing countries.

We do not get off scot free just because of better air quality due to our superior pollution abatement regulatory regime. Our downfall is more subtle because of lag time between air pollution exposure and paying the piper. Many of our cities are not in compliance with the Clean Air Act’s (CAA) pollution standards. Although these cities’ atmosphere is not contaminated enough to cause imminent death, it is sufficiently potent to shorten life expectancy when one is subjected to protracted, cumulative exposure.

The developing world takes a big hit from deaths directly attributed to relatively brief exposures to intense air pollution in the form of fine particulate matter. Emissions of particulates stem primarily from humanity’s burning of fossil fuels. India loses an estimated 1.6 million lives each year to premature respiratory disease from interaction with its heavy air pollution. Given its pervasive burning of coal, China experiences a similar mortality toll.

Largely spared the Third World’s choking air pollution (so far), we are victimized in a more delayed fashion. In the numerous American cities that struggle to meet the CAA’s standards, the result is a reduction in average life expectancy. Researchers estimate that current air quality reduces life spans on average by eight months in Los Angeles and six months in Chicago.

Those who manage to escape intense air pollution’s direct hit in developing countries have years shaved off their average life expectancy. In India, it is four years, with New Delhi’s especially miasmic haze producing an average nine year reduction in life span. Smog shortens life on the average of five years in Bangladesh and three years in Nepal’s urban areas.

Conversely, scientists calculate that a decrease in emissions of finite particulates add time to the average life span. If Los Angeles meets the CAA particulate standard, that tacks on an average six months to one’s longevity. A resident would gain a year if the city of angels were to comply with the United Nations’ World Health Organization’s standards, which are stricter than those in the CAA.

People are not keeling over from direct contact with bad air here as they are in some environmentally challenged locales abroad. But with pollution migrating around the world on the crest of wind currents, it is in our best interests to help the developing world bring their pollution under control. In the industrial backdrop of the 21st Century, the fate of all nations is environmentally intertwined.

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