I’ve been a smoker all my life.

I was born and raised in a part of New Jersey that didn’t reflect the motto, “The Garden State.” My mom smoked cigarettes before and after I was delivered; my dad smoked a pipe and occasional cigar. It’s safe to say, then, that I smoked cigarettes, pipe tobacco, and occasional cigars in my own house, in my parents’ cars, in private settings and public places every day while growing up. I was a smoker, indoors and outdoors, without the benefit of a filter. I thought it was gross and I protested, sometimes getting lucky to have a car window cracked, or finding another room available to diminish my proximity to “cancer sticks,” or persuading my parents to “please let’s ask for a table in the non-smoking section.” (Rarely was I that lucky.)

One reason (okay, a big reason) why college in Vermont appealed to me was that I would finally be able to escape this polluted environment of industrial New Jersey, and my own house, and live, learn, and play in a place where the air was clean and people were environmentally conscious. And, for the most part, I was correct. The air in Burlington was cleaner. Public smoking was still permitted, though, including in dorm rooms. Factories, trucks, and traffic were fewer but still produced dangerous clouds of soot. People, especially my classmates, were aware of doing their part in keeping the planet clean. (A recent trip back to Vermont revealed a state whose residents and public and private institutions continue to lead the way in conservation, sustainability, cleanliness, and renewable clean energy.) Acid rain was a huge environmental problem in the late 1970s, as the long hours I spent studying the ecosystem of Centennial Woods confirmed. Fortunately, federal legislation and regulations (the kinds that the usual critics always say will doom the economy, but never do) greatly reduced acid rain and the damage it was causing to Northeast forests.

After the relative reprieve of living in Vermont for four years, it was back to poor air quality — Manila for three years, Chicago for two, Pittsburgh for four and its South Hills suburbs ever since. It’s not easy to find clean air anymore, says Justin Worland:

More than 90% of the world’s population lives in areas with unsafe pollution levels, according to a new report.

The research, conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), underscores the growing risk that air pollution poses to virtually every demographic group across the globe. More than 6 million people died in 2012 from ailments related to air pollution, according to the WHO.

“Air pollution continues take a toll on the health of the most vulnerable populations — women, children and the older adults,” said Flavia Bustreo, WHO assistant director general, in a statement. “For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last.”

 

The WHO report is limited in that only exposure to particulate matter between 2.5 and 10 microns (PM 2.5-10) was measured in 3,000 cities across the globe, leaving one to wonder about other significant and harmful air toxics like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which together form hazardous ozone in the presence of sunlight and heat. The report also doesn’t look at other anthropogenic sources of outdoor air pollution, such as sulfur dioxide (see acid rain), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (present in plastics, which are derived from fossil fuels), and synthetic chemicals. Indoor air pollutants — tobacco, charcoal and wood (for cooking), radon, and others — are also not considered. And still, 92% of us on this planet breathe unsafe air. We haven’t even mentioned the two main air pollutants driving global warming and climate change as their concentrations in the atmosphere increase — carbon dioxide and methane. (Don’t worry. We will.)

Air pollution is known to create and exacerbate these following health conditions in people:

  • reproductive problems
  • complications of pregnancy (miscarriage, prematurity, low birth weight newborns)
  • infant developmental problems (birth defects and cognitive impairments; associations with autism, ADHD, learning disabilities)
  • mental illness associated with stress (anxiety, depression)
  • childhood asthma
  • adult lung disease (asthma, COPD, silicosis)
  • adult heart disease (heart attacks)
  • adult cerebral vascular disease (strokes)
  • cancer in children and adults
  • premature death

 

Jacqueline Howard points out that even though most of the burden of disease falls on developing nations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, cities in developed nations aren’t spared:

This includes major cities in Europe, such as Paris and London, and those in the United States, such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

“The pollutants that affect most people in the United States include particulate matter, especially the smallest particles that enter deep into the lungs, and ozone. Ozone has tended to be a problem that has affected large portions of East Coast, Gulf and West Coast,” Batterman said. “There’s also major regions across the Midwest and elsewhere that have problems with ozone.
“Particulate matter pollution also has been an issue in many different regions,” he added. “It is often a problem in some of the more urbanized areas, as well as industrialized areas of the country.”

 

Here’s the thing. Pollution in air doesn’t stay in one place. It doesn’t respect borders. What goes up eventually comes down where we live and breathe. Some of it (large particulate matter and dust) falls to Earth’s surface fairly quickly and pollutes surface waters (lakes, rivers, streams) and soil. Other emissions, like ultrafine particulate matter and ozone, persist much longer; carbon dioxide and methane stay in the atmosphere for centuries.

One look at the WHO interactive global ambient air pollution map confirms what I said at the top (at least metaphorically): I’ve been a smoker all my life.

In some respects, haven’t we all?

 

Next week, we’re going to take an extended look at a topic that, despite its desperate importance, has received virtually no attention during this current election cycle. I will implore readers of The PediaBlog to read the coming posts carefully, and to share them with friends and family by talking about them, emailing them to others, and sharing them on Facebook.

 

The PediaBlog has covered the adverse health effects of air pollution on children previously here.

 

(Google Images)