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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

It’s Not Just About Global Warming – Air Pollution and Health

More than 90% of children around the world are exposed to dirty air from the burning of fossil fuels. (Aliaksandr Marko/Adobe stock photo)

Janis Petzel, M.D.

Startling news from the science journal, Nature: Scientists are running out of children who have not been exposed to toxic air pollution to use as a comparison group for health studies. More than 90% of children around the world are exposed to dirty air from the burning of fossil fuels.

Internal combustion engine vehicles and coal-burning power plants throw nasty stuff into the air—acids such as sulfuric or nitrous dioxide; heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead (unleaded gas did not eliminate this problem); carbon monoxide; carbon dioxide; particulates; formaldehyde; benzene; ozone to name a few.

Industrial pollutants and car exhaust infiltrate the small spaces in our lungs when we breathe them in, causing direct harm to our bronchial tubes and our alveoli. This makes asthma and bronchitis worse. But what happens in the lungs does not stay in the lungs.

Microscopic particles known as PM2.5 are small enough to pass through the thin gas exchange membrane of the lung’s alveoli into the blood stream. Blood containing these particles is pumped by your heart to your brain and the rest of your body.

Wherever you find gas-or diesel-burning vehicles, you’ll find this tiny but toxic particulate matter. In an area where there is even a small amount of air pollution (like your garage in the winter when you warm up your car) you are breathing in these invisible time bombs.

Inflammation from PM2.5 particles is the link between pollution and a myriad of diseases, from non-insulin dependent diabetes to birth defects in babies and to dementias like Alzheimer’s Disease. We know that air pollution aggravates Covid, hypertension, ischemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease (strokes), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and is strongly suspected to play a role in some mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts in children.

The American Lung Association reports that children who grow up in areas high in particulate matter and ozone (components of smog) show reduced lung growth. It’s like these children grew up with heavy smokers in the house. And if there were smokers in the house, or sources of indoor pollutants like natural gas burning furnaces or cookstoves, the damage just piles on. Children are at risk even before they are born. Pregnant women exposed to air pollution have a higher risk for pre-term birth and babies with birth defects and low birth weight.

Who do you think is more likely to live near smoggy roads or downwind from a power plant—Bill Gates’ family or a poor family? We know there are social determinants of health (also called disparities in health), and they start early. People who have been discriminated against historically get pushed into lower rent housing close to trucking lanes and industrial sites (see the inspiring Duwamish River Community Coalition’s work to change this:

But living away from freeways and industry is not enough to protect your children. Non-freeway roads, and places where cars idle (including intersections with traffic lights) are areas of high air pollution exposure. On sidewalks, children in strollers get exposed to almost 50% more PM2.5 than the parent pushing the stroller—think of which set of lungs is closer to tailpipe level.

Idling cars and school buses produce tremendous amounts of localized air pollution, measurable in the pick-up lanes at schools. Think of that when you’re sitting in front of your child’s school with your engine running. What’s more, the pollutants are getting inside the car or bus while you’re sitting there, so when the kids climb in to go home, guess what they are breathing? Isn’t that disturbing?

Equally disturbing: Across the United States, idling in personal vehicles wastes about three billion gallons of fuel a year. Idling in trucks wastes another three billion gallons.

Our fuel purchases fund brutal regimes. For example, the U.S. has been buying the equivalent of 4.9 billion gallons of gasoline and 2.9 billion gallons of diesel in Russian crude oil each year (245,194,000 barrels of crude). While Putin gets richer, our vehicles emit completely avoidable air pollution.

There are so many reasons to stop burning gasoline, diesel, oil and coal. Has one more brutal war by an oil oligarchy (Ukraine is not the first victim, let’s hope it’s the last) made you decide it’s time to stop buying fossil fuels? Good. If not, what’s it going to take? How about the immediate benefit to your child’s health?

However, it is good to know that children’s respiratory health can rebound when the toxic exposure stops before permanent damage occurs. If you’re not ready to drive an all-electric vehicle, or your school district has not yet purchased all-electric school buses, at least turn off your engine if you’re going to be idling for more than 30 seconds. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends this, and it will not hurt your car.

Janis Petzel, MD is a physician, grandmother and climate activist whose writing focusses on resilience, climate, and health. She lives in Islesboro, Maine where she advocates and acts for a fossil-fuel free future. She serves on the Islesboro Energy Committee and is a Climate Ambassador for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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