Air Pollution Warnings Don’t Make It

Ideas and Issues
 Air pollution has become "the fourth biggest threat to the health of Chinese people" Photo: Getty Images

Air pollution has become “the fourth biggest threat to the health of Chinese people” Photo: Getty Images

Rock Creek, Montana    It was cooler yesterday and much cooler last night on the creek. For the first time in a week we had some clouds. There were reports of a large fire in the Bitterroots over the mountains from us. The air had been smoky in town, but was still clear along the Sapphires and the rough canyon of Rock Creek. When the breeze picks up, the flies disappear as well, and it’s actually somewhat of a surprise how fresh and clean the air felt to breathe.

It’s easy to forget what fresh air is like when we live in cities, even though in many big cities air pollution continues to literally take away months and years of peoples’ lives, and I’m not talking just about China and India, where pollution can, and does, reach horrific levels. The Economist working with a contractor crunched a recent year worth of data on air pollution in fifteen large cities. They were looking at the impact of pollution from nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and soot-particles that can embed in the lungs. They found some interesting things that are worth worry, and thought.

First, almost all the cities had different ways of distributing information, and therefore discussing, the risk of air pollution for their citizens. Most of us are familiar with “red” alerts signally real danger for the young and elderly or anyone with breathing issues like asthma. Most of us also make the mistake of thinking that the rest of the time, we’re OK. Many of us can remember when we could literally see the pollution in places like New York City and Pittsburgh, so trick ourselves into thinking these are better times for the lungs. Cities that fuzzy up the line between low, moderate, and high risk, are not doing us any favors in trying to get a cleaner gulp of air.

Secondly, they found that the rate of air pollution varies so much at different times that more information might instruct some adjustments in times children play outside or that workers commute to jobs. In Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam they suggested that parents might want to make Sunday, rather than Saturday the fun day, when NO2 was 20% lower. Commuters in many cities might find air much better by leaving or returning from work an hour later or earlier as well, but that’s easier said than done as well. But, you get the message: information is some power and might instruct action.

In a surprise, The Economist said, “The best pollution advice of all to people in [big] cities, though, is: move to America. In New York, levels of NO2 were 20% below WHO [World Health Organization] limit, and that is pretty typical of places in the United States, where diesels are less common than in Europe.”

Or of course spending more time in places like Rock Creek, Montana, sure sounds right to me this minute.