Road Trip Highlights US Environmental History and Shows Big Changes are Possible

Last week, I was in Pittsburgh, PA to serve as a Mentor at a Climate Reality Project training event. Having never been in that part of the country before, I spent a few extra days to explore the area. The overall experience felt like a road trip through US environmental history and was a great reminder that large-scale changes are possible, especially in this era of climate policy backpedaling.

First stop: Donora, PA. This Pittsburgh suburb was the site of the “Killer Smog of 1948”. As the longtime home of the Donora Zinc Works Factory and the American Steel and Wire Plant, smoke-filled skies were not unusual here in the early part of the 20th century. In October 1948, however, the air turned deadly. An inversion layer, a weather phenomenon where the temperature in the atmosphere increases with height instead of decreasing, trapped emissions from the factories. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisonous gases created a thick, yellowish smog. It hung over the area until the weather pattern changed five days later. As a result, twenty-six people died and thousands of others became ill.

This tragedy garnered national attention and spurred federal regulations on air pollution. In 1955, Congress provided funding for pollution research and later passed the Clean Air Act of 1963. In 1970, the EPA was created and Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments, which established national air quality standards.

Donora is proud of their role in this change in national environmental policy. Outside of their local Historical Society/Smog Museum is a sign that says “Clean Air Started Here”.

Another highlight of this trip was Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northeastern Ohio. Established as a National Recreation Area in 1974 and upgraded to a National Park in 2000, it reclaimed and now preserves the natural landscape along twenty-two miles of the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland, OH. While relatively small, the river is an icon of American environmental history.

Starting in the late 1800s, the river became highly industrialized. For more than a century, the steel mills and factories that lined its banks dumped untreated waste directly into the river. The Cuyahoga became so polluted that it caught on fire thirteen times.

The last time was June 22, 1969, when sparks from a passing train ignited the oil and debris floating in the water. This fire, while not the largest or deadliest in the river’s history, caught the attention of Time Magazine and became national news. Appearing in their August 1 issue, the article described the Cuyahoga as a river that “oozes rather than flows”.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, river fires were common and seen as the price of industrial progress and prosperity. By the 1960’s, however, that way of thinking was starting to change. The country was becoming more environmentally aware and the Cuyahoga River fire put a national spotlight on the need to protect waterways from industrial pollution. The event helped to galvanize the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972.

In the years since, the Cuyahoga River has made an amazing comeback. Bald Eagles – a symbolic emblem of this country – have returned to fish its waters and nest along its banks. In 1998, it was designated as an American Heritage River to recognize its historical significance.

Today, our environmental challenge is the carbon pollution that drives climate change. Its solution, as with conservation issues in the past, lies with policy adjustments. While these types of large changes can sometimes seem impossible, history reminds us that they are not. All that is required is the will to act. As Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.

Cuyahoga River, past and present. Credit: Cleveland State University Library

Wearable Artwork Raises Awareness about Air Quality

The air we breathe is not always good for us. Air pollution has been linked to a number of health concerns, from asthma to heart disease, and even cancer. To raise awareness about this issue, artist Dominque Paul has created a dress that changes colors to indicate how safe the air we breathe actually is. It’s called Air Quality Interactive Wearable.

With the exception of smog and wildfire smoke, air pollution is not something we can always see with the naked eye. To make it visible, Ms. Paul uses an Air Beam, a portable device that measures the amount of small particles (PM 2.5) in the air. These are particles that are less than 2.5 microns or 0.0001 inches in diameter. Using the Air Beam’s calculation, a color from the EPA’s Air Quality Index is assigned to the dress. These colors range from green for good air quality to yellow, orange, red, and purple, which indicate increasing levels of pollution.

Ms. Paul created this wearable art piece as part of a residency program with IDEAS xLab, a non-profit organization that uses art to raise awareness about public health. Watch the video below of her “Air Walk” in the South Bronx section of New York City.

Air Quality Concerns in Sequoia National Park

Situated high is California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sequoia National Park protects the only place on Earth where giant sequoias – the world’s largest trees by volume – grow naturally. Air pollution, however, does not recognize the boundaries set up by the National Park Service (NPS). While hiking there recently, I learned more about the air quality issues facing this national natural treasure.

According to a recent report by the National Parks Conservation Association, Sequoia National Park received an “F” for air quality. While other parks in the NPS system also have air quality concerns, Sequoia NP was rated the worst in the nation. In 2014, its Ash Mountain monitoring station recorded 56 days where the level of ozone was above federal health standards.

In most parts of the country, air quality issues are often connected to emissions from coal-fired power plants, but in California there are a few other factors at play. While the region’s notorious wildfires do create some air quality problems, the NPS says the vast majority of the pollution in the park comes from human activities outside its borders. With a prevailing westerly wind in the region during the summer months, emissions from large-scale industrial and agricultural activities as well as massive amounts of vehicle exhaust are swept eastward from San Francisco and across the San Joaquin Valley. Trapped by the topography of the valley, the polluted air is heated and forced to rise up to the elevation of the park. Pollutants found in the air include nitrogen oxides, ground level ozone, fine particulate matter, and traces of pesticides.

Of these pollutants, ground level ozone, which forms when nitrogen oxides react with heat and U.V. light, poses the most serious threat to human health. It is known to cause a variety of repository problems and is often the reason given for air quality alerts.  It is also harmful to plants and trees – the organisms that are supposed to be protected by the park.

While ozone does not seem to be impacting mature sequoias, the NPS says experiments have shown that it is stunting the growth of sequoia seedlings. That said, other trees in the park, such as Ponderosa and Jeffrey Pines are feeling its full effect. Damaging their stomata – tiny pores on their needles that usually absorb carbon dioxide -the pollutant reduces a tree’s ability to perform photosynthesis and therefore its ability to produce and store food.  As a result, they are weakened and more susceptible to disease and insects. The telltale sign of ozone damage is the yellowing and thinning of a conifer’s needles.

Air pollution is also responsible for the smog that obscures views in the park. On a clear day, according the NPS, the view from Beetle Rock – which is about 6,200 feet above sea level – extends for more than 100 miles. In summer, when the smog is worst, that view is often significantly reduced.

The good news is that air quality issues in the park – like much of the rest of the country – have improved in recent years as a result of measures associated with the Clean Air Act. The bad news is that it still remains a serious problem. Seeing that our actions can make a difference, we can continue to reduce air pollution by conserving energy and reducing emissions – a similar strategy to reducing the impacts of climate change.

View from the edge of Giant Forest. Credit: NPS

A view looking southwest from the edge of Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park. Credit: NPS

EPA Seeks to Cut Carbon Pollution 30% by 2030

The issue of climate change mitigation was front and center in Washington, DC yesterday as the EPA unveiled its new Clean Power Plan. The proposed regulation would reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from all the fossil fuel based power plants across the United States.

According to the EPA, “The combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity is the largest single source of CO2 emissions in the nation, accounting for about 38% of total U.S. CO2 emissions in 2012.”  Since coal is known to release more CO2 than any other fossil fuel, this new regulation targets existing coal-fired power plants.  Specifically, it calls for a 30% cut in carbon pollution compared to 2005 levels by 2030.

To comply with this new national regulation, individual states will have flexibility in how they choose to cut emissions. Some options include increasing energy efficiency, maximizing renewable energy sources like solar and wind, and joining a regional cap-and-trade program like RGGI in the northeast.

In addition to fighting climate change, this new rule would also improve air quality and human health. Issued at the direction of President Obama under the authority of the Clean Air Act, the EPA says this regulation will “reduce pollutants that contribute to the soot and smog that make people sick by over 25 percent.” In fact, the agency projects the lower emissions will help avoid as many as 6,600 premature deaths and over 100,000 asthma attacks in children.

While this new rule is not without its critics, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy emphasized the need for action. In a press conference, she said: “This is not just about disappearing polar bears and melting ice caps. This is about protecting our health and it is about protecting our homes.”  The new regulation – scheduled to be finalized next summer – will also help the U.S. meet its commitment to the U.N. to cut carbon pollution by 17% by 2020.

US Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Source.  Credit: EPA/Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2012

US Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Source.                          Credit: EPA/Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas            Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2012

Air Quality Concerns in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park protects 800 square miles of the southern Appalachian Mountains. It is the largest federally protected upland landmass east of the Mississippi River.  Air pollution, however, does not recognize these human-drawn borders. While traveling in the Smokies recently, I learned more about the air quality issues facing this country’s most visited national park.

According to the NPS, most of the air pollution impacting the park originates outside its boundaries. Emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from power plants, factories, and vehicles are the main sources. Carried by wind to the southern Appalachians, the height of the mountains and the prevailing weather patterns of the region tend to trap the pollution in and around the park.

Originally named for its naturally occurring smoke-like blue haze, the park in recent years has been shrouded by unnatural white smog. Produced by tiny sulfate particles – released into the air by the burning of fossil fuels – the smog scatters light and reduces visibility. It has degraded views from the park’s scenic mountain overlooks and dulled its signature blue haze. Since 1948, according the NPS, human-made pollution has decreased average visibility in the region by 40% in winter and 80% in summer.

Ground level ozone, formed when nitrogen oxides react with heat and U.V. light, is known to have negative impacts on human health.  In the Smokies, it is also injuring trees and plants. Damaging leaves, it reduces photosynthesis and limits a plant’s ability to produce and store food.  As a result, they are more susceptible to disease, insects, and extreme weather events.

Acid rain is another problem for the park that is rooted in air pollution. It develops when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides react with water and oxygen in the atmosphere to form solutions of sulfuric acid and nitric acid. This type of precipitation alters the chemistry of forest soils and streams. It jeopardizes the health of entire ecosystems, as a large array of species – from fish to trees – cannot adapt to the more acidic conditions. The average pH of rainfall in the Smokies, according to the NPS, is 4.5. That is 5–10 times more acidic than the pH range of normal rainfall.

While air quality issues in the park – like much of the rest of the country – have improved in recent years, it still remains a serious problem. Addressing the matter, the NPS says: “The Park Service is working with state regulatory agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency, and industrial and utility interests to develop a comprehensive plan to prevent future damage through such measures as offset programs, the use of improved technology, and determination of emission caps and government standards for various pollutants. To remedy air pollution problems at the park, additional reductions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide are necessary.”

State of the Air: 2014

Are you concerned about the quality of the air you breathe?  Air pollution, a by-product of our modern age, is an ongoing problem in many parts of the United States.

According to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air Report, 147.6 million people – 47% of the nation – live in counties with unhealthy levels of particle and ozone pollution. That is an increase of 16 million from last year. One of the worst polluted cities is Los Angeles, CA, where the air is considered unhealthy 120 days of the year, on average. For a list of the most polluted as well as the cleanest cities, click here.

Particle pollution comes from a variety of sources, but chief among them are industrial emissions and vehicle exhaust.  When these emissions react with the U.V. light of the sun, they form ground level ozone. Both of these pollutants are known to have serious negative impacts on human health.  They especially affect individuals suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

While air pollution continues to be a serious challenge in this country, the report also notes the fact that our air – overall – is cleaner now than it has been in previous decades. This is largely due to the regulations put in place by the Clean Air Act.

To check on the quality of the air where you live, click here.

Smoky Haze Fills the Air in NYC

The smell of smoke filled the air in New York City Monday morning.  Its source was a 1,600-acre brush fire in Wharton State Forest, NJ – about 90 miles away.

Burning since late Sunday, the smoke was trapped near the ground by a local temperature inversion. This is a weather phenomenon where the temperature in the atmosphere increases with height instead of decreasing.  Essentially, the inversion layer acted like a lid and caused the smoke to spread out horizontally rather than vertically.  A low level wind from the southeast then carried the smoke toward the city.

The smoky haze prompted the EPA to issue an air quality alert for the NYC area. With a spike in the pollutant known as “fine particulate matter”, this was the first time this year that the city’s air quality dropped below “moderate” on the agency’s AQI scale.

Smoky haze fills the air in NYC.  Image Credit: WPIX.

Smoky haze fills the air in NYC.  Image Credit: PIX11.

WHO: Air Pollution Causes Cancer

Air pollution has long been linked to a number of health problems, including respiratory and heart diseases.  Now, it has been shown to cause cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, released a report on Thursday which concludes prolonged exposure to air pollution and particulate matter can cause lung cancer and increase the risk of bladder cancer.  Unlike some other environmental carcinogens, air pollution is nearly impossible to avoid, as we all need to breathe. Caused by vehicle exhaust, power generation, industrial emissions, and residential heating, its sources are ubiquitous.

While the report did not quantify risk by country, some places are more polluted than others. Here in the United States, the Clean Air Act has helped improve air quality in recent years. Nonetheless, pollution continues to cause health problems for many people across the country.

Globally, according to the IARC, air pollution contributed to 3.2 million pre-mature deaths in 2010 alone.  More than 200,000 of those were from lung cancer.

Air Quality Improvements in NYC

New Yorkers can breathe easy.  The city’s air quality is the cleanest it has been in fifty years.

While speaking at a Climate Week NYC event yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city’s sulfur dioxide levels have decreased by 69% since 2008 and soot pollution has dropped 23% since 2007. This data is based on the results of a New York City Community Air Survey, which monitored air quality at one hundred locations across the five boroughs.

This impressive reduction is largely attributed to the Clean Heat Program, part of the larger PlaNYC initiative for an environmentally sound city.  The program encourages building owners to phase out the use of heavy heating oils that pollute the air.  Over the past three years, according to the mayor’s office, approximately 2,700 buildings have converted to cleaner fuels.  Following regulations established in 2011, the use of dirty heating oils in NYC will be illegal by 2030.

Since air pollution is known to aggravate cardiovascular and lung diseases, public health officials estimate that the cleaner air is preventing 800 deaths and more than 2,000 emergency room visits each year.

A Late Spring Heat Wave in NYC

Temperatures have been soaring in the northeastern United States.  In fact, it feels like mid-summer and the start of that season is still more than two weeks away.

In New York City, temperatures reached 90°F for three consecutive days.  This marks the city’s first official heat wave of the season.  Our normal high for this time of year is a more moderate 75°F. This extreme heat also caused a number health concerns, including air quality alerts.

The dramatic rise in temperature across the region was the result of a Bermuda High – an area of high pressure that steers hot air from the Gulf of Mexico toward the northeast.  The summer-like conditions of this weather pattern, however, are expected to come to a stormy end late tonight as a cold front moves into the area.