Monday, December 28, 2015

Be thankful for the clean air you breathe

The article begins, “In the space of an afternoon, Beijing vanished. … By evening, all was gone, engulfed in a gauzy-white miasma. Buildings rose into hazy oblivion, and the sun became a dull yellow orb, like a flashlight shining from under a blanket.”

The great danger of the air pollution in Beijing is the small particulate matter known as PM2.5. The WHO advises that fine particles of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter should not exceed 10 micrograms per cubic meter.

The Friday afternoon when Beijing disappeared, its levels of PM2.5 “reached 429 micrograms per cubic meter, 17 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit. … 

“By Monday, the Air Quality Index, a widely recognized measure of air pollution, hit 587 on the usual scale of zero to 500, registering as “beyond index” on monitors throughout the city. (The United Nations' recommended maximum level is 25.) … This week’s smog spread across a land mass of 204,634 square miles, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection — about 25% larger than the state of California.”

What’s scary to know is that as bad as the pollution is in Beijing and other Chinese cities, it is even worse in India and Pakistan. The following cities, according to the World Health Organization, have the worst average air pollution, as measured by mean levels of PM2.5: 

Delhi, India (153); 
Patna, India (149); 
Gwalior, India (144); 
Raipur, India (134); 
Karachi, Pakistan (117); 
Peshawar, Pakistan (111); 
Rawalpindi, Pakistan (107); 
Khorramabad, Iran (102); 
Ahmedabad, India (100); and 
Lucknow, India (96).

Even though Beijing has recorded extremely bad days, its mean annual average of 90 PM2.5 is not quite as bad as the above places.

By contrast, most of America’s metropolitan areas have much cleaner air. Since the Clean Air Act of 1970, the U.S. has improved across the board. Yet these 10 were the worst in the United States from 2011-13, as measured by mean annual particulate matter (PM2.5), all exceeding the WHO standard of 10 micrograms per cubic meter:

Fresno-Madera, CA (47)
Bakersfield, CA (42)
Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, CA (17.3)
Modesto-Merced, CA (15.7)
Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA (15)
El Centro, CA (14.1)
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA (13.8) 
Cincinnati-Wilmington-Maysville, OH-KY-IN (13.6)
Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV (12.7)
Cleveland-Akron-Canton, OH (12.2)

Generally, clean air is an expensive commodity, one which rich countries are willing to buy, by restricting the effluents of cars, factories and (often) coal-fired power plants. Poor countries which are trying to develop and industrialize rarely feel they can afford the price clean air costs.

I don't think there is an easy answer for developing countries. However, if the health consequences of particulate air pollution are bad enough, my suggestion is to make polluters pay the price for what they exhaust into the common air everyone breathes. The more junk that comes out of a car's tailpipe should mean a higher tax for the driver/owner of that car. If that were done, drivers would have an incentive to drive cleaner cars. Same thing for smoke stacks at factories and power plants. If the operators had to pay a stiff fee based on how much effluent they put out, they would have a good incentive to invest in cleaner technologies.

As long as everyone else pays the price for an individual's pollution or the effluence of an industry, there will be more bad air days ahead.


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