Clean air: Not a pressing-enough matter, apparently

I can say with a high degree of confidence that when air pollution is viewed as a serious enough problem (taken here to mean that such is viewed by the vast majority of people to be a serious health threat and one of considerable concern) and/or the issue becomes important enough to enough people, then and only then will the quality of our air be brought to a state of healthy repair. Has this time arrived? If not, then why not?

Part of the 2010 Gulf oil spill cleanup effort
Part of the 2010 Gulf oil spill cleanup effort

To provide a frame of reference, consider the 2010 crisis in the Gulf of Mexico related to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster and subsequent oil spill; a tragedy that got the world’s attention and fast due to loss of life, damage done and in that it was seen as an immediate threat to both area ecosystem and economic health, what with the way such were impacted and all, not to mention the global implications. To say the spill caused disruption in affected peoples’ lives and livelihoods, well, that would be putting matters mildly.

Undoing the damage caused by the release of the equivalent of more than 2 million barrels of oil over the 87-day period the fugitive oil spilled, is no easy task – in fact, the cleanup effort is still going on and will probably continue for years to come. Regarding this catastrophe (and others like it), it just goes to show the lengths people are going to turn the tide and fix what went so horribly wrong.

Seeing air pollution as catastrophic as key?

In contrast to and unlike oil spills, the fallout (i.e., associated negative environmental impacts) of such being absolute (evident), with the breathing in of polluted air, on the other hand, there are many variables involved, such as what pollutant(s) is (are) breathed in, and in what context the inhalation of such is considered. For example, what is the pollutant amount inhaled and over what duration of time? Depending on exposure factors, regarding any consequent damage caused, it might take years or decades for symptoms from such to become manifest.

That there is a difference between how the two disparate situations (air and Gulf waters contamination) are weighed with regard to immediacy and/or seriousness (taken here to mean impact on life) in terms of public perception and response, understanding this distinction, should cleaning the air be made job 1 and, if so, how can air-pollution cleanup be made that high a priority?

Please understand that I believe cleaning our air should be of extreme importance and necessity and, right off the bat I can think of 3.2 million reasons for doing so – 3.2 million is, by one estimate, the number of people worldwide who died prematurely due to the effects of polluted air – this was in 2010. Put in perspective, 3.2-million people equals the population of a typical major American city – give or take – or roughly 1 percent of the American populace. Add to this the growth in the numbers of air-pollution-caused early mortalities – it has been exponential. As a matter of fact, the number of such deaths is up from 800,000 just a decade earlier; a four-fold increase.

Immediately, alarm bells should be going off. I suppose it would be different if the numbers were in decline. That they are not should be a wake-up call.

So, another question: Will the number of air-pollution-caused early deaths continue its yearly exponential rise to say 5 million, 10 million, 20 million and so on and so forth (I believe you get the idea here), before conditions are fixed? Do the numbers have to get that high or higher before comprehensive corrective action is taken? They don’t and shouldn’t. Comparatively speaking, it was 11 people in all in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig mishap who lost their lives as a result.

Which brings me to my last thought: It is people who can and do make a difference in effecting positive change, that is, if the inclination is there. If proof is needed, there is ample evidence to support such a claim.

That said, there is every reason to believe the day will come when people the world over will organize and in such vast numbers to boot, each and every capable human being an active, participating player in the air-cleanup effort, all intent on returning the air not just to a state of sufficient repair, but indeed to that of a healthy state, that is, by their getting together and to work to do just that. Just so you know and in my mind’s eye, it isn’t a question of if, but when.

Image above: Patrick KelleyPetty Officer 3rd Class, U.S. Coast Guard

– Alan Kandel