(Sorry this transcript sucks, we'll fix it as soon as we can!)
Thank you Sam for this amazing transcript!
[heavy background noise]
[0:04] David are you ready to record?
[0:06] Yeah I'm all ready to go let's go.
[0:10] Wait what's that sound David are you in the middle of a hurricane or something?
[0:14] What, no this is just like my personal air protective equipment, it is like the bare minimum I need to be safe.
[0:22] Are you in some kind of toxic waste land right now what's going on?
[0:27] I mean you could sort of say that. I'm here in New York City, it's a beautiful clear day outside so...
[0:35] You sound like you got, like, earmuffs wrapped around your mouth and you're trying to speak through some kind of muffled contraption over there.
[0:42] Okay, okay, I'm only going to take this off 'cause you want to risk my life, but I'm going to keep my my fan on so hang on.
[background noise decreases]
[0:51] Is that is that a little bit better there Daniel?
[0:53] Oh yeah that's a little bit better on the audio.
[0:55] I'm risking life and limb for you right now taking off my personal protective mask just so you can hear me clear.
[1:03] Well as dramatic as that sounds I know the listeners will appreciate it, but why do you need a protective mask right now?
[1:08] I told you, it's a toxic wasteland out there. I mean after looking through the things for this week's episode I don't see how you can not be wearing a mask right now.
[1:19] Your voice sounds better but you still sound like you're in a hurricane, what's that in the background?
[1:22] Well that, that's just my air filter, um, sort of need it to not die a young death, but I guess I'll make a sacrifice for you and our listeners here let me turn it off, one sec.
[background noise fades out with the sound of machinery powering down]
[1:40] You back with us David?
[1:41] Yeah I'm ready let's let's go I guess. I'm David Torcivia.
[1:46] I'm Daniel Forkner.
[1:48] And this is Ashes Ashes: a show about the systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky, the end of the world.
[1:57] But if we learn from all of this, maybe we can stop that. The world might be broken, but it doesn't have to be.
[2:04] The more astute listeners out there may have realized that this week we are talking about that invisible menace that surrounds all of us, and is maybe one of the most dangerous things we face in the world today; and that menace is air pollution.
[2:17] And you know David, this topic is very similar to the one we covered in episode 7 about the air that we breathe and how certain environmental factors all around us can impact us in dramatic ways that we don't see until much later. Well, this episode is very similar in that, all around us we have particles, we have chemicals, we have toxins, having an immediate and a long-term impact on our health that we don't fully understand yet. Magnitude of Air Pollution by Deaths
[2:44] And while we might not understand all the problems facing us yet, what we do understand is the magnitude of the impact of air pollution. This is one of the largest killers in the world today, in fact it kills more people than HIV and malaria combined. The numbers themselves on how many people die annually from air pollution are sort of up for debate; there's some range in here even within a single report (like one report that the World Health Organization put out) but, there seem to be about 7 million people dying annually from air pollution.
[3:12] That is a lot of people, and 9 out of 10 of us - a whole 90% of the global population - is breathing in air that is considered dangerous by World Health Organization standards.
[3:24] And of course like most of the problems that we discussed in the show, this is only going to get worse as time moves forward.
[3:30] I wonder if one of the reasons it's hard to quantify the numbers of people that die or are affected by air pollution is precisely because it's so ubiquitous and isolating the variables can be very difficult, and because it varies so much depending on the place and the types of particles and toxins that you're dealing with. Right now many people are aware that we have raging wildfires all across the western coast of North America and it's affecting the air quality everywhere. In Seattle right now they have some of the worst air pollution as a result of this smoke from a million and a half acres of burning wildfire all around them, it's coming in and blanketing the whole city! People have been advised to stay indoors, keep windows shut, and avoid activities that will harm indoor air quality like vacuuming. And as we'll see when we get into the section about the health impacts of this air pollution, it can affect us in so many different ways, it can result in so many different illnesses and diseases, that it's hard to pinpoint air pollution as the single cause of this mortality and death.
So with that David, what is air pollution? Is it just smog that comes out of car exhaust that hangs over our cities and makes us cough when we breathe it in? Is it the smoke from wildfires?
What is Air Pollution?
[4:44] Well Daniel, it's all the above and so much more at the same time. The interesting thing about air pollution is that when we think of it we have this very specific image: it's a smoggy city, the sun is out but you can't see anything, there's maybe just electronic billboards sticking out of the clouds, and it's like a very Bladerunner-esque image of this polluted future. But, for most of us the day-to-day impact of air pollution is entirely invisible. These are teeny, tiny particles that float around in the air, and we breath them in and they cause different health effects on us. These are things like dust, smoke, soot, dirt, liquid droplets, chemical things that come out of cars, or other industrial processes. And so we breathe all these things and carry them with the air that we need to survive. These teeny tiny pieces are called particulate matter, and what's important about particular matter is that anything that's smaller than 10 microns which is very small, and a lot of these things are...
[5:39] For comparison the diameter of a human hair is around 75 microns.
[5:44] Right, so very, very small; and anything that's 10 microns or less - which is the vast majority of this air pollution - well that can enter the bloodstream via our lungs. And particulate matter 2.5, which is a very important air quality measure, it's called PM 2.5, that can get into even more places than just crossing that simple lung blood barrier.
[6:04] So these are particles less than 2 1/2 microns, very, very small. And the problems that occur when this particulate matter gets into our bodies, it's similar to the concept we discussed in episode 19 where we discuss plastic. Which is, you know, these micro-plastics in the environment that we digest, they have health consequences based on so many factors including: their shape, based on how much accumulates in our body, and based on what other toxins and organisms they pick up on the way before they enter our digestive tract. And this particulate matter in the air is similar. Not only are we dealing with the effects of just large numbers of physical particles entering our body (blood), knocking into things, causing inflammation, well these particles also have the ability to absorb things in the environment such as other toxins and concentrating those into our lungs and into our blood. In addition some of these particles themselves have chemical properties that make them dangerous. I mean we're dealing here with nitric oxide, we're dealing with ozone, or dealing with sulfur oxide - all these chemicals that on their own when they enter our lungs can cause problems.
[7:12] Another major factor in this overall air pollution is something called VOCs, or volatile organic compounds (you probably heard this before). And these are emitted by all sorts of things but mainly by the combustion of fossil fuels, though many things in your house probably off-gas VOCs. It's just a side effect of existing and slowly degrading a lot of plastics, things like that, probably your carpet is doing this right now. And these VOCs over long periods of time can have very toxic health effects that we'll get into later on.
[7:39] And David, you know you mentioned at the very beginning of the show that you being in New York City, you bought this respirator mask and you have your air purifier going, but I think you're being a little bit paranoid because...
[7:50] Me, paranoid?
[7:52] You know we have something called the Clean Air Act, which means that all our air is clean now because it's regulated.
[7:59] (audibly scoffs)
Don't don't let me scoff at you, please continue.
[8:03] So I'm sure it's not as bad as places like Beijing, you know, where they had that embarrassing moment at the Olympic Games where there was so much smog, we don't have that here in the United States.
[8:14] Well you're absolutely right. I mean it hasn't been like that in the United States for 40, almost 50 years at this point since the passage of that Clean Air Act. And it has had dramatic effects in cleaning up our air, it's still got a long way to go. Places like New Delhi, which is the most air polluted Mega-City in the world, are really catastrophic to human health. New Delhi in particular is three times more polluted than Beijing, which is like the go-to image in people's head of the polluted city. It is at some points like smoking 44, even more than that, cigarettes every single day just in terms of breathing the air that exists outside. They tried all sorts of gimmicks; at one point last summer they were shooting water cannons into the air, pretending it's going to make a difference getting this dust out of there. The high court in India recently had a ruling and they mention in it that the smog of the city was like, quote, "Living in a gas chamber." It is a very intense place that is not good for human health. The same as absolutely true for Beijing; China has declared red alerts in numerous cities during times of peak air pollution for years now.
[9:18] And together India and China account for at least 50% of the air pollution deaths that do occur globally, so a huge number of that 7 million people figure.
[9:28] That's absolutely true. But these so-called developed Nations don't get off the hook either. In Europe, Spain and Italy have declared states of emergency in Barcelona, Milan, and Naples because of air pollution. In London, some areas exceed their entire annual limit for nitric oxide (that NOx thing we talked about earlier) in just in the first few weeks of the year. The UK has tens of thousands of people die from air pollution annually. This is not something limited to these quote, "developing nations," places where they lack regulations: this is a global problem.
[10:01] It really is a global problem to the point where air pollution in some places is the primary cause of death. Doctors in Afghanistan's capital Kabul declared air-pollution the number one cause of death.
[10:14] Tehran, Iran has shut down schools to keep people indoors and shielded from poor air quality outside. Cairo has the second worst air pollution in the world for all the mega-cities, and its levels have been measured as high as 100 times greater than the upper extremes of the World Health Organization limits. So then of course the question is, where does all this air pollution come from?
Sources Of Air Pollution
[10:35] You know last week we discussed the history and the development of logistics, and how the need for greater expansion and speed of the flow of goods increases risks for work. Well David, I got a big surprise here for you but it doesn't just affect the workers, but it also increases the health risk to people on the margins of this logistics system, and that's through the exposure of increased air pollution.
[10:59] I never would have guessed.
[11:00] Yeah so a UK government study this year found that commercial ships are pumping nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the air around Britain's ports at 4 and 3 times as much as previously thought, respectively. These two gases alone kill an estimated 40,000 people in the United Kingdom every year. And in port towns, the air pollution from ships can make up 30% of the air that people breathe. But it's not just the UK that deals with this problem: globally, shipping is responsible for 15 and 8% of the nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide in the air. And because 90% of all the products that we purchase here in the developed world are likely to be on a commercial ship at some point, once again it goes back to that consumption that drives this destruction and does harm all around the world.
[11:53] One other interesting point about this global shipping and its contribution to air pollution, is there's actually some legislation that's gone through (and this is in the EU, but also international trade groups) and they have made a new regulation that is requiring these mega shipping-container ships to burn a cleaner fuel that's going to take care of a significant portion of this nitric oxide and sulfur oxide pollution. It's a huge step forward to cleaning up our air. Of course, like all laws...
[12:20] Yeah what's the problem David, what's the catch?
[12:22] Of course like all well-intentioned efforts there are some unintended side effects. So first off, the reason why these mega-ships put out so much pollution is because they burn a very, very cheap type of fuel called bunker fuel. It's basically just sludge, but these special diesel mega-engines that these giant ships have can burn this very unrefined dirty fuel, and they burn it primarily on the trans-oceanic portions of their journeys and they switch to a cleaner fuel when I get close to ports because of these various regulations. But they're basically going to ban bunker fuel completely, and that's going to make shipping more expensive so that the vast majority products that ship this way, which as you mention is a huge amount of products, they're all going to get slightly more expensive so that's one thing we have to look forward to from this law. But if that means cleaner air and because of that less health effects, well then that's something that's a net good and then we're pricing in responsibly these side effects, the unintended externalities, right, that's a good thing. But, and here's the but Daniel:
[13:20] Yeah I don't want to get too excited here.
[13:22] In one of our other episodes where we talked about geoengineering, we mentioned that one of the most effective ways of reflecting sunlight, and because of that the energy that warms up Earth, is something called "marine cloud seeding." When these very dirty fuels are burned it emits a lot of these particulates into the air, and that causes a huge amount of clouds to be generated. These clouds reflect energy back into space, keeping it from being absorbed by the ocean, by the Earth's atmosphere, but switching to cleaner fuels mean this very significant source of cooling is going to be gone.
[13:52] David. I want to stop you out here because I think I know where you're going with this, and to be honest I think this is one of the most discouraging or depressing aspects of this topic. And I don't want people to simply leave the episode before we've gotten these very important facts out of the way, so can we just hang on like just a few minutes before we get to this point.
[14:13] Okay Daniel I'll do that for you since I'm already killing myself by taking off my mask. I can sacrifice one more thing.
[14:20] Look there's no limit to the amount of sacrifices you can make David. But you know David, it's not just the ships that carry our goods, but obviously it's the cars, it's the trucks, it's the diesel engines, it's the petrol combustion engines that we drive, that our truck drivers and logistics workers drive, that put a lot of the pollution into our air. That's why we have this push internationally, for more fuel efficient cars, for engines that burn cleaner fuel, and that give off less pollution...
[14:48] Electric and natural gas vehicles. For most of us these are the vast majority of pollutants that we encounter day-to-day, especially those of us who live in cities and suburbs because there's so much traffic being driven around us. It generates a lot of these nitric oxides, but also these volatile organic compounds, these VOCs, and these build up inside our homes, they build up on roadsides, they build up anywhere that lots of traffic is. That often means things like playgrounds for schools, which are usually built on slightly less expensive land, and these all build up in the air around there and then we breathe it in, and it slowly builds up within our body.
[15:25] That's right. In Lima, the capital of Peru, an estimated 80% of all pollution related deaths are result of the air emissions coming from very old buses and cars that aren't up to the new international standards.
[15:39] This is a major problem in a lot of the large Latin American cities were there are so many old cars and trucks especially, they haven't had the strict regulation and clean vehicles that have occurred in Europe in North America, and so consequently the air pollution from these vehicles is much greater. The currency crisis and the general crisis that's going on in Venezuela right now means a lot of people can't afford fuel for these vehicles. And so Caracas, which was one of the world's most polluted cities in terms of air pollution and had these very famous traffic jams where people get stuck in traffic jams anywhere from an hour to four or five hours - ridiculous gridlock City, constantly burning all this fuel and putting it into the air - well suddenly when people can't afford that fuel and they no longer drive except for scooters and other very small vehicles that are highly fuel efficient, the air has cleaned itself dramatically and people have noticed this and gone out and breathed this fresh air, and they're like, well this is actually kind of nice! I mean like yeah it cost me a million Bolivars to buy toilet paper, but the air is clear. And there's actually been a huge amount of life, of birds and other animals moving back into the city, because they're not being killed by the toxic air. So every single tragedy here also has a positive side, and that's the only time you'll ever hear me say that.
[16:57] When other cities around the world have also recognized this, a number of cities have implemented an even-odd license plate scheme where they try to limit the number of cars on the road by only permitting half of the people to drive their vehicles, and alternating this by even and odd license plates. That's a big thing in China, they do that in New Delhi, and I think they're experimenting that with some European cities as well.
[17:19] Honestly we should just ban all personal vehicles from cities, and business vehicles should only travel under certain restricted hours and have to have a permit for it. But that's a radical opinion, and something we'll get into it someday with an episode about cars but it's for a different time.
[17:37] That wouldn't work David in Atlanta where you literally have to have a vehicle to get anywhere. We don't have a very walkable City here.
[17:44] Oh I know. It's going to be painful, it's going to take a lot of investment, but the benefits from it are so huge eventually people and governments will no longer be able to ignore that, or maybe they'll end up like Venezuela and have no choice.
[17:56] We have to be fair there is a lot of pollution that comes from cars and vehicles and things like this. But you mentioned the volatile organic compounds that come from things like our carpet, and that's because a lot of petroleum-based products; these are cleaners, the paint in our houses, our personal care products...
[18:13] Basically all plastics that you have...
[18:16] Right. It turns out that these do emit a ton of VOCs and we have been under-estimating the amount that they do release by at least a factor of 3. In fact, according to a paper that was published in Science, in many cities these products alone may be releasing just as much into the air as those cars and trucks. So even if we could replace all our cars in our cities were still not going to be doing enough to combat this air pollution that's all around us.
[18:45] But we can't blame everything on shipping, logistics, cars, vehicles, and then all the consumers we have in our house, because we also have to attribute some of the blame for terrible air quality to the industrial processes that depend on and enable these other things.
[19:00] What do you mean David?
[19:01] So these are the factories that produce the raw materials that we turn into these household products. The refineries that create the oil that power these logistical systems. All these are enormous emitters of air pollution and in places that are an industrial, or whatever that word means, the amount of air pollution locally is significantly higher. These are places like New Jersey, the areas around Houston (where there's a lot of industry) and these things, yes, we do lot of cleaning in the air with them but it it's not enough. And then sometimes these cleaning systems break down. So we saw after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston area, a lot of these industrial plants lost some of their air scrubbing capabilities. And the pollution around that area skyrocketed while these plants continued to produce, but without the safety and environmental protections they normally operate in. People at the time complained about all sorts of problems with their lungs, itchy skin, itchy eyes, and little has been done to look into the effects of the hurricane on the health of these individuals. Though I'm sure now many lawyers are salivating at the thought, and we'll hear more about this over the next five to ten years unfortunately because of people's health effects.
[20:09] Well speaking about industrial processes, and especially if we're talking about Houston where a lot of oil refineries are, yeah the oil industry contributes a ton to this pollution problem. And there was actually some political drama in the UK recently as it was discovered that the government had hidden a report for 3 years that showed that the fracking industry significantly increases air pollution; and it's not just from the actual extraction, but it's also due to all the surrounding activity and all the industry that goes on to support the actual extraction. You know, all the diesel trucks that are coming in and coming out, and all of these machines that are going on, all of this contributes to air pollution.
[20:51] Yeah Daniel all this came to light, actually just last month when this report finally came to light, conveniently after the government had already approved an expansion of the fracking industry there.
[21:03] I'm sure that's just a coincidence but according to the report, if the fracking industry in the UK expands to its estimated future size involving 12500 wells that means that nitric oxide and those volatile organic compounds that you mentioned, well they're going to increase by 12 and 9% respectively within the country.
[21:25] What's insane about that is that we can almost directly link those figures to a body count that will occur because of this increased air pollution, because we have a rough idea of how many people die annually because of these already existing nitric oxide and VOC levels within the UK. A 12 and 9% increase, or you can extrapolate out and see how much more minimum people are going to be impacted by this, which is a tragedy and I'm sure also does not show up in that report.
[21:51] David that's a very interesting point that expanding this oil industry is going to directly result in more death.
Does Progress Outweigh The Cost?
[21:58] But you know one of these defenses of expanding civilization is that life gets better even though we suffer some type of side effect. And a lot of the examples come down to these cars where we say, look; a lot of people die as a result of car crashes every year, but hey that's just the cost of being able to drive anywhere you want. It's going to happen. There's a risk associated, however small that is, and when you multiply that risk out by millions of people, people are going to die. But we have to balance the benefits and cost of civilization. Do we want global trade in all these products if it means that there's a small risk that people are going to suffer, or do we want to just live in this primitive world where we can't have anything? So from the oil industry standpoint I'm sure they'll say, well the body count or however many people die as a result of our industry is overshadowed by the economic benefit that we derive from the industry and from all the energy that we get from the production of the oil.
[22:57] I'm glad you brought it up Daniel because yes, I mean that definitely plays into this, but there is a dark math that's happening in the background that you'll never see show up in these reports where they actually calculate the value of life lost from these sorts of ideas. And this is not some sort of weird insurance adjuster sort of thing, but actually a major component of what the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, does. And I'm sure the same thing is happening the UK, I'm not as familiar with their environment protection groups. But the EPA has something called the value of a statistical life; it's a way of calculating how much a life is worth in a certain situation. And instead of directly assigning a human life a value like the US government does when they accidentally drone strike the wrong person in Afghanistan or in Yemen or something and they pay out to these families...
[23:47] They usually give the family like $5,000 or $10,000 or something.
[23:51] Whatever it is. American lives, of course, are worth much more in the government's eyes. When the EPA doesn't want to try and assign a dollar value for a life - because it looks really bad; it can change and it depends on what life it is - so instead they settled on this thing called the value of a statistical life. Which basically...they ask a huge amount of people, so like say like a hundred thousand people (statistically carried out so it will be much smaller group) but they project out 200,000, and they say: how much would you be willing to pay annually, to save one life? And if somebody says $100, and that's the ultimate average figure that comes out, then they assign the value of life in this scenario to be 10 million dollars per person that are killed. So they'll take this in an environmental manner and be like, okay the people around here; you can have cheaper gas, you can have this new thing, but it might cause impacts on people's health, might kill people, how much more would you be willing to pay for something in order to protect somebody's life? Like what is the the value that you will be willing to sacrifice for your own personal amount of money, in order to save a life? And they calculate that out, and if that number is less than the economic impact, well then it's a net gain economically and it's worth sacrificing those lives in order to allow this thing to go forward.
And again, you're not going to see this sort of math done publicly. The EPA will do this in terms of like enforcement, and regulation, and court stuff, but this sort of idea of the value of a statistical life is absolutely carried out by these companies, by the oil groups and stuff. It's like that scene in Fight Club where were they like, oh yeah we did the math to figure out the cost of the recall versus the cost of settling out of court. How many people are going to die from this thing? And if the recall costs more than settlements, than we're not going to recall. It' a very similar, horrible way looking at the world, but it's very common. Is that right? Well I think anybody who hears that is going to be like, this is super fucked up! This is a horrible way to reduce people down to dollar signs, and especially also leaves out all these other unforeseen externalities of these actions. Things that we talked about the past, and pointed out that nothing is actually profitable when you look into the damage that we've done to people's lives and to the environment and the world as a whole. If we're destroying the world with the removal of these fossil fuels, making it so that no life can exist one day, or civilization at least on a large scale can't exist, like we know now; we're wrecking all the profit incentives. Then what the fuck does it matter if a life is slightly less expensive then the economic gains you see you from these frack wells? It's crazy.
[26:20] I think you put that really well David because this is something I've been struggling with. If you read some of these reports, for example I'll give you one example is, these UK scientists did the math on the healthcare cost of cars across the United Kingdom. And they concluded that in the city of London a single car will add $10,000, or £8,000 to the National Health bill over its lifetime. And for a diesel vehicle in London that cost is closer to $20,000. And they estimate that across the country, the UK experiences 83 billion dollars in health care costs associated with all air pollution, and for the whole continent of Europe that's around 1.6 trillion dollars, a very significant portion of GDP. And of course if these cost are then used to justify, "hay we need to improve this technology, we need to make things more efficient, because look at all the costs we can reduce."
It seems like we're waiting for these types of reports to provide the economic case to halt or alter our most grievous industrial practices. Because in a way, based on what you're saying, it kind of is a contradiction. We should know by now that the only way industry works - the short-term extraction of oil, or it could be industrial agriculture where we're putting chemicals into the soil that ultimately harm the land and that are very finite and their reserves - the only way this works, the only way we make profit in this way, is by putting off the true cost of our activities. It doesn't really even make sense to try and adjust for the cost because the costs are everything. You know, what is the cost of depleting the entire Earth reserves of soil?
You can't reduce that to simply what is the health care cost of someone going to the hospital right now? Or what is their statistical average value of life based on polling a whole bunch of people in this area where they din't even live? The only reason international shipping is economical right now is because shipping companies do not pay for the environmental and health damages they inflict. The only reason that industrial agriculture works, and why we can still celebrate high crop yields, is precisely because those yields come at the direct expense of the soil's ability to provide in the future. We are destroying the world in the future so that we can produce something in the present, and that is fundamental to the way our economy works. So trying to determine the hidden costs of an industry for the purpose of maintaining that industry is really an attempt to have our cake and eat it too. It doesn't make any sense because all of that profit is essentially stolen. It's stolen from the future, or it's stolen from somebody right now in the form of their life. If we want to include the cost, all the costs of industry into our equations, then we will simply have to get rid of profit altogether because it really doesn't exist.
Health Impacts Of Air Pollution
[29:13] So I mean, it's very obvious that there is a dollar value assigned to the health impacts of this air pollution, and maybe it works out economically in the short-term but overall obviously there are huge problems with the way that this is even assigned, but maybe we should instead change our focus for just a moment and look at some of these actual health effects. And we're just discovering more of these every single year. Some of these diseases that we'll mention have only been linked to air pollution within the last 12 months or less and this is a constantly developing area. We know so little actually about the effects of a lot of this air pollution on our health that these numbers of how many people are impacted, these dollar signs of what it costs to drive a car something, are constantly going to be going up. Not just because of rising healthcare costs, but because our understanding of the impacts of this air pollution and its effects on your health are always increasing.
[30:00] You know David this is actually where I think the episode gets a little bit more interesting, which maybe no one else will feel that way, but for me I was very surprised at how many different health effects result from just particles in the air that we take in.
[30:15] Okay let's roll through some of these real quickly. And the one that I'll start with, because this is something that I suffered from when I was younger, I've mostly grown out of it now, but is a asthma. And this is the very obvious go-to...
[30:26] I feel so much worse now for making you take off your respirator.
[30:29] I know I'm like literally choking to death here. No [laughs], I've grown out of asthma, a lot of kids do, but the amount of kids and adults now suffering from asthma are dramatically increasing. So air pollution is known to increase the risk of an asthma attack and that translates obviously into higher asthma-related deaths. In the UK Asthma-related deaths have risen 25% over the past 10 years with over 1,300 deaths in 2017 alone. And the largest increase in the number of these asthma deaths are in people over the age of 55 which is something unusual because asthma traditionally is more of a problem for the very young but we're starting to see a transition to more the elderly that are being affected by this. And you'll notice a lot of our stats throughout this episode are from the UK and it's because they have some really excellent reports on the impact of air pollution, something that is lacking in places like United States, intentionally or otherwise.
[31:20] And perhaps it's not that surprising that air pollution impacts asthma. But one that did really surprise me is diabetes. So in episode 14 we talked about sugar, and a big concept in that episode was the rise of chronic disease all over the world, and diabetes is one of the worst chronic diseases worldwide. It's one of the biggest in terms of health care cost for national health budgets. And it turns out that sugar is not the only thing that contributes to diabetes. Air pollution does as well. A major study published this year in the Lancet Planetary Health Journal helped quantify that relationship. The researchers looked at data on 1.7 million US citizens who had no record of diabetes at the start of an 8 and 1/2 year timeline. And at the end of those eight and a half years the researchers then compared the levels of diabetes in the data with documented pollution levels. All medically known causes of diabetes were controlled for in the study. And what they found was a 21% incidence of diabetes among people who have been exposed to relatively low levels of air pollution. And these findings were used to create a model to combine with global data on diabetes and pollution and these models estimate that air pollution causes 3.2 million new diabetes cases around the world every year. Now why does this happen? Well the hypothesis is that air pollution induces inflammation in the pancreas and that affects insulin production in the body. By the way that's a staggering number of people that we're adding to chronic diabetes statistics.
[32:59] And if we're talking about staggering amounts of numbers then I don't think anything beats out stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer. So here the World Health Organization reports that air pollution, and these numbers blew my mind when I read them, air pollution is responsible for 24% of all adult deaths from heart disease, 25% of all adult deaths from stroke, and 43% from all chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And then the obvious one here, 29% of all lung cancer is caused by air pollution. Those are huge amounts of these very chronic diseases that are some of the biggest killers in the world caused by the very air that we breathe.
[33:37] It's interesting how I feel like in our society we put a lot of blame on individuals for their personal health. Say, "Oh you know, you're overweight, or you have diabetes or you have congested arteries, you must not be living a very healthy lifestyle. You don't have a good diet, you're not exercising enough." And a lot of these narratives are promoted by the very companies that contribute the most to the stressors in our environment. Companies like Coca-Cola and the soda industry that we talked about.
[34:02] And to be fair, some of these things are absolutely your personal health choices, your diet, how much exercise do you have. But I mean, 1/4 of these deaths are caused by something that's totally outside of your control: the air you breathe. This is a serious problem and we need to remember that our health isn't just all our choices, but also the choices of those around us and the world that we live in, and I think this is a great example of that concept.
[34:23] And you're absolutely right that our individual choices do matter, but it just makes me wonder how much of our individual choices are exacerbated as a result of something in our environment that puts us at a much bigger disadvantage. You know it's very possible that if we existed in an environment of pure air, of a more natural state that our bodies are acclimated to; maybe lower levels of that ambient CO2 that we talked about in episode Last Gasp, perhaps our individual choices would not have such a big impact on our health. Maybe we could get away with a little bit poorer diet or less sleep, and these things wouldn't affect us the way they do in this chronically stressed environment.
But that's all speculation Dave, let's move on to another health effect and that's neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. So Alzheimer's disease is something that is not totally understood in how to prevent it. We don't really understand what it's ultimate causes are. However a big clue was uncovered by researchers in a 2016 paper published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Science.The presence of magnetite in the brain - this is an iron oxide - has been causally linked to Alzheimer's. But up to that point in 2016 it was assumed that magnetite could only exist in the brain through natural formation. However, this study found conclusive evidence that the particles are also getting into the brain directly from air pollution. They are small, these are less than 2 microns, and the magnetite nano-particles the researchers found in the brain samples that they looked at were shaped and ways only possible through the type of high heat friction and combustion that takes place in industrial processes. And so once magnetite settles in the human brain it helps produce something known as reactive oxygen species, which bounce around and create disruptions, and they're known to create neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
[36:20] And this is I think a really important topic because when we talk about air pollution, I think most of us think, oh, of course it impacts my lungs and that's the end of the conversation. You know, I'll get black lung disease from coal miner, or maybe lung cancer later on, but this direct effect that occurs in our brain is a very clear reminder that the dangers of air pollution aren't just limited to our lungs. These teeny tiny particles and the toxins and chemicals they carry, cross into our bloodstream in are carried throughout our body. They find their way into all different parts of us. Into our pancreas, like it causes diabetes, and into our brain. And once it's in our brain it, of course has direct impacts on our cognitive functions. Pollution that reaches the brain can result in inflammation which harms neurons, it causes memory problems, and it impacts the very behavior that we exhibit because of these damages to our brain. And this prevent brains, especially in the young, from developing naturally. There are extremely strong links between air pollution and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Ambient PM10, so this is particulate matter 10, which is much higher than the 2.5 microns that we're most concerned about, this very large level of particulate mater, well that leads to 11% prevalence of ADHD in children versus just a 2.7% appearance of ADHD in a control group that wasn't exposed to this higher level of air pollution. And what's more, boys are more susceptible to this than girls, which lines up really well with ADHD occurrences in the population.
[37:49] Here's another really interesting one, David. So we've mentioned that air pollution can get into our lungs, it can then get into our blood, some of the very small particles like those iron oxide less than 2 microns, they just go directly into the brain through our nose. But there's another crazy way that this air pollution starts to interact with our body and that's through the bacterial ecosystems that really our entire bodies are made of in the first place. There's a 2017 study that came out with this finding that black carbon in the air can have dramatic effects on the development and growth of certain bacteria.
[38:25] And black carbon is a very common byproduct of a lot of industrial processes and also things like burning fossil fuel.
[38:30] Makes sense. And the full range of implications of course are unknown, but in this specific study researchers found that in mice the presence of black carbon causes the S pneumonia bacteria to spread from the nasopharynx to the lungs, where dangerous infection is more likely. This bacteria is commonly found in human respiratory tracts, where it causes no harm in people with healthy immune systems. However, when is spreads unchecked, that's when it can start to cause a number of infectious diseases including pneumonia, meningitis, bronchitis, and much more. And the implications of the study go way beyond this surface observation that pneumonia can be triggered by air pollution. If we remember that extinction episode from 3 weeks ago, ecosystems are complex; and any change in their diversity, or a loss of function, these can have traumatic long lasting impacts that are impossible to predict. And every living thing on this Earth is essentially, like I said, a complex bacterial ecosystem. So this is a startling finding that the air that we're breathing threatens the stability of those bacterial ecosystems in ways that we frankly cannot predict.
[39:41] And if we're talking about extinction, maybe we should address the fact that air pollution seems to have a dramatic effect on sperm and fertility.
[39:48] I don't have a problem with this David, I don't know why we're bringing it up.
[39:51] You have a lot of children here, Daniel?
[39:52] No, but...
[39:53] Well then you don't know what you're talking about! [laughter] So a study carried out last year in Hong Kong looked at data on 6,500 men and found a quote, "strong association between abnormal sperm shape and elevated levels of particulate matter in the air." Now to be fair it was just an observational study, and no cause and effect relationship was established, and tracing the cause of an oddly shaped sperm is very difficult to do in general so there is a...
[40:16] Right it is very difficult to do, it's it's kind of hard to make conclusions based on anything related to the topic.
[40:22] But I think it is an important point because this is actually an under-reported crisis, if that's the right word, occurring in the world right now. So in the past four decades the amount of sperm in men all over the world has plummeted dramatically.
[40:36] But it can be very difficult, though, to identify who those men are because it's really an anonymized study and we just don't know anything about...
[40:46] Keep digging your own hole here Daniel. Daniel's personal medical conditions aside, today's men have less than half the sperm count that they did in the 1970s, and this is a major worldwide phenomenon, we don't understand the full implications yet. Sperm count of course correlates with fertility, but it can also be a sign of a much more complex health problems; things related to testosterone, and we're very clueless as to the cause right now. Most likely it's a number of factors, including environmental factors, things that stress babies in the room, this particular matter in the air, the increased amount of hormones in our food in our water, and we're still nailing down exactly what is happening. But almost certainly, air pollution is going to be one of these factors in this reduced fertility that were facing worldwide.
[41:28] And to be fair I was not alive in the 1970s, so again more uncertainty and all of this. But you mentioned David, how the some of these effects can take place in unborn babies while women are still pregnant. And so let's talk about how this is affecting, or potentially affecting unborn babies and children, and how that translates into very long-term societal-wide effects. There was a study carried out in London over 4 years, which examined more than 540,000 births. And it found a very strong correlation between low birth weight, and mothers who are exposed to air pollution. And although this study was not able to conclude a definitive causal link, it did observe that while on average mothers in London breathe 15 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter, each 5 microgram interval represents a 15% increased risk of giving birth to a baby with low weight. And low-weight births carry a lot of potential long-term consequences, so we see that this air pollution which is introduced during pregnancy can influence the future trajectory of a human life.
[42:38] And after these babies are born, the exposure to air pollution continues to have effects. Obviously. According to a recent report by UNICEF, some 17 million babies are breathing in air that is 6 times worse than established limits that are honestly, probably already not low enough. And over 90% of all the children in the world, that's 2 billion of them, well they breathe air that exceeds World Health Organization limits. This means a majority of the people who are growing up in this world right now are experiencing not just lung damage, but damage to sensitive brain tissue which carries lifelong consequences on cognitive development and ultimately behavior.
[43:14] This reminds me so much David of that episode 7, where we started with that introduction on lead, and how lead exposure in the environment dramatically impacted the brain development in children resulting in more violent, unpredictable behavior later on in life. And we blame these people for their behavior without realizing that they were literally poisoned by the things that we are putting into their environment. And it's the same situation here. From the moment a child is born in this world where we have heightened levels of ambient air pollution, their cognitive development is stunted in some way. It's affected in some way. Their future health has been put at risk. And the full range of implications of this, of course, are totally unknown. We do not know how this will affect society as all of these lives are altered in some way by this environmental factor, multiplied out by billions of people over an entire lifetime and how that will shape the society in which we grow up. In the United States and Europe, that lead, well it resulted in many people believe, a more violent atmosphere until we were able to - still not successfully - but we have made a lot of progress in removing lead from many of the environments that people are exposed to every day. But it had dramatic impacts on society and we're probably still to this day feeling those effects in major ways.
[44:39] We just simply don't realize what the alternative of a clean environment is.
[44:43] That's right Daniel, they're still so many questions in the air.
[44:48] There's so many questions up in the air David? You know what else is in the air David? Pollution.
[44:52] Oh wow, didn't see that coming [laughter]. But there are so many questions up in the air about the pollution, the effects of it, how it works, and even things that we've already discussed like lead. I mean we listed a very large amount of diseases and consequences that can result from air pollution, and to be clear this is only a small part of the total amount of health effects that can occur. And all of that is because of air pollution itself. What it's made of, when it enters the body, how long the exposure is, and what pathways it enters the body. All these variables interact and are important to the severity of these effects, and exactly which diseases you get, if the problems actually occur ultimately, if it can lead to mortality. And we don't really understand all these variables because they're so complicated, there's so many of them. And we're constantly living in this world where air pollution is a reality, where it's something we can't avoid. When are individuals most vulnerable to air pollution? We don't know. How deep does it affect cognitive development? We really have no idea. We don't have answers to even a small portion of these questions. And part of what makes understanding this air pollution so difficult is that is hard to isolate for any one particle or variable.
I mean this is the ambient air! So removing an individual from the air to study single variables, it's not really practical or even possible in most of these studies. At the same time some of the effects of air pollution require an external stress to be present before a health problem can manifest itself. So one is the key that opens the door and that's what causes the problem ultimately. And this may be why a higher proportion of air pollution health effects occur in poorer countries and within low-income and minority communities in countries like the United States where these people must deal with a wide variety of other hardships including racial discrimination, police violence, worse education, financial pressure, poverty, food insecurity, whatever it is, causing these increased stresses on the body that leaves them vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.
[46:40] And perhaps it's because of all these questions and these uncertainties that cities around the world do not adequately educate their citizens on the quality of the air and what it means for People's Health. The WHO has established standards for what the organization considers to be safe levels of many of the particles that can be found in the air, but the indices that cities and countries all around the world use to convey air pollution to their populations, they seem to be completely arbitrary and they don't even follow these World Health Organization guidelines. For instance, Great Britain will say its air pollution is low when nitrogen dioxide levels are five times the WHO safe limit. We here in the United States, we also exaggerate what is safe in terms of air pollution. At the same time, a lot of these indexes on air quality themselves misguide people into under-estimating the risks of chronic exposure to any level of pollution. The very existence of an air pollution index that tells us the air is good today, or the air is bad today, use caution, these give us the false impression that there is a safe and healthy level of air pollution. David this is something you mention much earlier in the show, about how there is no safe limit. There was a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and its found exactly that: that there is no level of air pollution that is safe. And of course, the health risks are especially acute for older or more vulnerable individuals. The study looked at 22 million deaths in the United States of people aged 65 and up, and it found a direct correlation between deaths and a level of particulate matter in the air. As air pollution goes up, more people die. As it goes down, less people die. It's as simple as that. And according to the authors of the study, there is no safe level of exposure to ozone and other particulate matter.
[48:33] Another proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study published this year shows that the decline in United States air pollution is occurring much slower than the Environmental Protection Agency has actually claimed. Satellite data reveals that we have been reducing certain pollutants in the air like nitric oxide and carbon monoxide at much lower rates than we actually thought. It appears that the EPA overestimated the effectiveness of certain technological improvements in cars and trucks. But our ability to fight air pollution will be even harder now that the EPA is committed to lowering the standards for car emissions and other pollutants going forward.
[49:06] Okay David so basically we don't really know what's going on. And I think this is where we need to bring up the two, probably most significant points that we're going to make in this episode: and that's the relationship air pollution has on global climate change, and some of the ways that we simply don't understand it. And so after all that we've discussed so far, like I alluded to earlier David, this is probably the most discouraging section of this episode; because now that we are a little bit more aware of all this pollution around us and some of the harmful effects its having on us, you know we're all charged up, or angry, we're ready to solve this problem, right? We're not taking no for an answer!
[49:42] Nah let's do it! Change!
[49:43] We're here to demand more electric vehicles cleaner, power plants, you know our politicians are going to fix this problem, right?
[49:51] Yes we can!
[49:53] Not so fast David.
[49:54] Oh no, what?
[49:55] Turn your fan back on and put your respirator mask on, because it turns out that some of this pollution actively slows the progress of climate change. And reducing it risks speeding up the rising temperature that threatens to destroy all human life on the planet. We touched on this a bit and episode 21 and how...
[50:14] Actually Daniel I think we were talking about this earlier this episode with the international shipping before I was so rudely cut off.
[50:23] Oh yeah, yeah, when I wanted to save the worst for the last.
[50:25] Well here it is everyone.
[50:27] Okay, well do you want explain once again how some of this air pollution could possibly mitigate some of the progress of climate change?
[50:35] Very quickly, it works something like this: so the sulfates and these other aerosols that we mention that are generated by things like burning this very dirty bunker fuel, can increase cloud cover. And it deflects a lot of this incoming sunlight and consequently that prevents the Earth from heating up as much and in certain cases can even cause a cooling effect. This effect is actually has a name because it's been scientifically studied. It's called, "global dimming."
[51:01] Interesting. Well a 2016 paper that was published in Nature Geoscience, estimates that this aerosol deflection has hidden a third of the warming that we've caused in the past 50 years. Now this doesn't mean that our air pollution has prevented warming; it just means in a way we've hidden it out of sight, and this is necessarily temporary. It is similar to the way the ocean has masked much of our emissions. The ocean has been absorbing massive amounts of our carbon dioxide emissions, and this means that as the oceans capacity to do so starts to wain, we will see an unprecedented acceleration of warming as our emissions have a much higher direct impact on climate. And this air pollution is very similar; if we start to clean this air pollution up, it is going to release the temporary cooling pressures we've experienced all at once and that's going to have dramatic impacts on our global climate. For example a 2016 paper that was published in Nature Geoscience, concludes that up to half a degree celsius increase in the Arctic is attributable to air pollution reductions in Europe since 1980. Ok David so think about that. In the Arctic, which is the most important region for regulating climate worldwide...
[52:17] And to be clear the Arctic has warmed significantly more than the rest of the world. So why while we face .9 degrees or so increase in Celsius, the Arctic is significantly higher than that at this point already.
[52:28] Yeah that's right. And of the current increase that it has experienced, half a degree has come from the reduction in air pollution alone just over the past 40 years. And similarly, if we were to eliminate all human emissions of aerosols right now, today, our global temperature would increase between half and a whole degree Celsius from that change alone. And David if that were not bad enough, some of the aerosol pollution around our cities, well it redirects weather patterns and it serves to mask some of the most violent and extreme weather events we should expect with a warming planet. Which means that reducing these pollution levels in cities threatens to disrupt the most amount of people from violent precipitations and other storms that would then be more likely.
[53:16] This is such an incredibly important point. I really want to drive it home several times here. And that's the fact that we are dying from air pollution in huge amounts, millions of people annually, and those of us who don't die immediately from it are facing debilitative diseases like Alzheimer's, like diabetes, and it's also actively changing the way our brains work - especially in unborn children and the very young. This is a huge global health problem. But, we're trying to fix it, we're trying to clear the air, we're trying to get rid of all these pollutant gasoline and diesel vehicles, we want to envision a world that is powered by electric energy or something similar. We want to get rid of these polluting coal plants, we want to move away from natural gas, and we ultimately want this world that is completely renewable; solar panels, wind power, hydroelectric. Things that don't output this air pollution. But the catch is if we do that, things that we have to do to prevent ourselves from cooking because of climate change - instantly, we jump almost overnight a degree Celsius in warming. And that1.5 degree Paris agreement goal, something that we need to eliminate all this pollution anyway to achieve, it's gone, we passed it. We're at 2 degrees or more. You can see now at this point that there is no possibility of reaching 1.5, because the technology that we need to reach is 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, it clears the air. And its global dimming effect causes us to jump past that goal. So we can snap our fingers right now [snaps], transform all of our polluting air to clean solar energy, we would still warm up past this goal, instantly. There is no solution here. We're either killing ourselves with the air that we breathe, and if we fix that we cook to death.
[54:58] There are no solutions here David.
[55:00] Well it's not that there's no solutions, it's just that there's bad and worse solutions and I'm not sure which one is worse. Maybe we need to pull out that statistical life measurement and do the math and see.
[55:11] David maybe we just don't know all the potential solutions. Maybe there is a solution out there, but there's one thing I know: and that's that this highlights the fact that we've been going about these problems the wrong way for so long. We have for too long been addressing existential threats with incremental changes that are intended to maintain the status quo. And if we continue to do that, well maybe you're right that we simply won't find a solution. We have to radically change the way we address these types of problems. This is something we saw with the original ozone crisis, where in the seventies it was pointed out that we had this huge hole in the ozone layer (which we still do) and it threatens the very existence of human life. It took a lot of effort to get some of the chemicals that were causing this replaced with something else in the factories all around the world. But ultimately that's not good enough. It hasn't solved anything. It's only put off the inevitable, which is as long as we think that we have to have economic growth - and that is our assumption, that is our foundation - then when we see these problems like air pollution is killing the world and we have global climate change that threatens all of human civilization, we don't look at the things that were doing and say well maybe we shouldn't be doing this thing. Instead what we're doing is we're trying to find some kind of marginal or incremental change that will maybe price the cost of this into our activity so we can find a better economic model to continue doing the same things we've been doing, and continue to do, and will do into the future. And so, the point I'm trying to make here David is that the only way to seriously consider our future, is to open the conversation up to allow a more radical look at the economic processes that fuel our civilization. We don't have to have a civilization that's founded on the burning of cheap fossil fuels to move goods halfway around the world, 24/7, as fast as possible. That's not the only way that humans can be organized on this Earth. But it's guaranteed that that organization structure is going to kill us. But unless we're allowed to question that, we will never find the correct solution to this problem.
What Can We Do?
[57:24] So I mean things are hopeless right now. I mean I've already established the point that we going to die from air pollution or from climate change and then we're sitting here at our choices. So maybe that sort of immediately neuters our "what can we do" section of this episode. That is sort of a bleak question when we have these choices of doom one way or the other. But there are things individually we can do and collectively; the actual change that we can make might be something that is possible at fixing both of these problems given enough time. But individually, absolutely: please go out and buy an air purifier. This is one of the rare times that we're going to tell you people to go out and consume things, but it really, especially if you live in a city is an excellent thing to do. Put it in your bedroom where you spend most of your time, it is going to clean up your air and it's going to eliminate a lot of these long-term exposure to things like box to VOCs, to PM 2.5. Buy one that has a HEPA filter, change it frequently like it says, there's all sorts of different models and things. This is a very important investment in your health, and I encourage you to put one in at least every bedroom of your house. This is something that should just be standard all around the world at this point. If you can afford it, please do.
Outside of that, silly masks that we wear when we walk around on especially polluted days; these are already a de facto fashion item and places like China. They should be in India, and it really should be in the most of our major cities, especially during the summer when air pollutants are at their worst. These surgical masks that you see that don't do anything, that's just preventing your germs from reaching others. What you want is a mask that is at least in N95 or greater. You can buy all sorts of cool looking ones online if your fashion conscious about it and don't want to look like a lost contractor. You're going to be silly if it's hot, it's uncomfortable, but your health will thank you years down the road. Obviously from there, there are number products you can put in your own home to analyze your air locally, see if this is a concern, see if you need to open a window, close a window, add an additional air filter, these things are important. We really need to think about air as one of the major environmental impacts of our life. But beyond that, these are these are individual things we can do to help ourselves. Life jackets in a world that's drowning.
But any actual change that needs to take place needs to be with all of us collectively coming together and realizing that our way of life, like always, is unsustainable. And we're killing ourselves, reducing our health, giving ourselves diseases, and impacting the next generation of people that were depending on to solve these problems (the children) because of our air pollution which is a direct result of our way of life. The cars we drive, the products we buy, and the shipping and logistics that enable them; the production of those products in the first place, and the raw materials to generate them; the oil, the extraction, refining, and ultimately delivery to our vehicles, is such a huge process of generating all of these pollutants. The electricity we use. All this adds up. All of this leads to negative health effects. And by reducing our consumption of these products collectively we can make a radical difference. Beyond that we really should be looking at very extreme solutions like: banning cars from cities, creating areas known as clean air zones. But it's not just enough to protect these small areas from the air pollution. That just shifts the problem somewhere else. Collectively as countries, and globally as a world, we need to come together to fine those who produce the most pollution. To punish them for their actions against all of us. And though they might justify it by saying we need these products, if these products are that damaging to the collective health of all of us and ultimately the world itself, we need to seriously examine our need for them. We don't need this math that says these deaths are worth this economic value which is less than the actual product created. Instead, we need to make the choice, the responsible choice, of less stuff in exchange for a healthier world and healthier lives individually. And we need to remember that it's not simple enough just to clear the air. Air pollution's complicated, there's lots of affects we don't understand. And even if we just get rid of all these particulates from that air, we still have to deal with the climate change effects that they leave behind.
[1:01:20] David those are some very practical things people can do in addition to some of the point you're making. I myself am probably going to buy a respirator, but I want to drive home one other point that I think about a lot and I think we need more conceptual awareness about: and that's that we really as humans on this planet, we really do not understand the world. We do not understand the full range of consequences of the activities that we do. We do not understand the health effects of all the things we do. We have a very, very limited understanding of the world around us and so much of our understanding comes from just being reactive. This is how scientific knowledge progresses so much, is that we just simply probe things and we figure things out, and this is problematic when we go full speed ahead in terms of indefinite growth and the need for profits at the expense of any and everything. And you mentioned the need for things like banning cars from cities and cleaning up the air, and then this of course is important, but at the same time there are some relationships going on in this air pollution that we don't understand. There was a study published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last December that discovered efforts to reduce air pollution in North American cities is resulting in a new class of air pollution never seen before in heavily populated areas. So as we've kind of touched on nitrogen oxides, VOCs, and oxygen, they all have a complex relationship in the atmosphere. Nitrogen oxides and the hydrocarbons that make up these volatile organic compounds, these are released from the exhaust of cars and other sources. They interact with each other, and in this process ozone is created among other things.
[1:03:03] An ozone is a potent pollutant of its own.
[1:03:06] That's right, so understandably regulations seek to improve air quality by targeting emissions of nitric oxide and hydrocarbon emissions. And in some places these efforts have been very successful. In the United States, cars today produce just 1% of many of the pollutants that they were admitting in 1970. And in the past 10 years, nitric oxide in the air above Los Angeles has decreased by a factor of 2. But hydrocarbons are harder to target because they come from so many more sources like paints and other products that we mentioned, older engines, and different types of engines, and things like lawn mowers, and even a number of natural sources as well. And so by reducing the amount of nitric oxide in the air at a faster rate than the reduction in hydrocarbons, we are changing the ratio of these two pollutants. What this means is that soon there will not be enough nitric oxide in the air to react with hydrocarbons, and so the hydrocarbons will start reacting with themselves in a process called gas phase auto oxidation. Long story short, this will create large concentrations of something called organic-hydroperoxides in the air. And never before have we seen this take place in heavily populated areas. So we don't really know what effects this might have on population health. In fact, the lead scientist on this study says quote, "We don't know how the formulation of gas and aerosol hydroperoxides will impact public health. But we do know that breathing in particles tends to be bad for you," end quote.
And maybe this will be a problem, maybe it won't be, but there's something that I want to point out, and that's that we as a species learn about our world and about ourselves through a very reactive process. We look around us and we say, "People seem to be dying, let's look at that and find out why?" Or, "Oh, our livestock keeps getting sick. Maybe we can research a medicine to try and help that and keep them growing." And what is consistent and so many of these discoveries is that we start with a human caused problem like this air pollution. We follow that up with a mitigation or reactive measure for the purpose of allowing us to increase this human behavior that caused the problem in the first place, which then repeats the cycle all over again. I'm reminded of Mark Risner in his book "Cadillac Desert" where he talks about the unsustainability of civilization in the desert, specifically Western United States in the 80's, and he foreshadows that all the water projects going on in an effort to combat the problems of water scarcity will simply exacerbate the problem by allowing additional development to take place, which will drive even more consumption of precious water resources and result in an eventual and very painful collapse of civilization in these areas. And we're doing the same thing in the face of this climate change. It is not fully understood. But all countries around the world admit it is a serious problem that we should do something about it. But yet we still do not admit publicly that we have made a mistake. The problem is simply framed as a very natural consequence of the unavoidable human progress that we must keep driving. It's never that we made a mistake expanding beyond the Earth's natural carrying capacity and that we should scale back. Rather it's something bad is happening, maybe we can continue to expand if we make cars more fuel efficient. Maybe our economy can continue to grow indefinitely if we designed better vaccines and raise the quality of education. And this emphasis on 'maybe' is important because even the IPCC and other institutions that purport to be experts on the issue of climate change admit that we have no clue how bad things are going to get. So we have clearly embedded an idea into our society, an idea that economies must grow. They must never stop growing, and that this growth is good and necessary. And that assumption has become so entrenched within our society that we cannot question it. And that means that we have this tendency to rush forward. We destroy everything in sight to try and get at some profit, and only after we have destroyed the foundation upon which we stand do we try and find a temporary technology to maintain this progress.
I think we have to ask ourselves, how long are we going to allow the economic and political leaders who hold the most power in our world to act in this way? We have somehow allowed a propaganda to seep into our public narratives, that tells us to let economic forces proceed with no oversight and no accountability outside the whims of investors, profits, and markets. We've allowed ourselves to accept the narrative that any company or industry that can make money is adding value, and that trying to control or preclude the existence of that industry is going to, quote, "harm jobs," or destroy the economy. The destruction is already here. It's all around us. We are already literally killing ourselves. And with just 4% of wildlife left on land, we are way ahead of ourselves in killing everything else. When are we going to accept that those in control of the economy no longer deserve their position as our billionaire heroes, and that their promise of jobs, magic technology, and philanthropy has long been a ruse?
[1:08:27] As always that's a lot to think about, and think about it we hope you will. If you want to read more about any of these horrible health impacts read that amazing UK study, or a full transcript of this episode. You can do all of that, and much more on our website at ashesashes.org.
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