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Speaker coaches on how to breathe easier

04/21/15 by Rebecca Rider


Air quality is a moral issue. That’s what Dr. Francis Koster told an audience April 14 at the Center for the Environment building on the Catawba College campus.

Koster, author of the Discovering the New America and the column “The Optimistic Futurist,” spoke about the dangers of air pollution and the necessary steps the humanity must take to breathe more easily.   

Koster received his doctorate from the Program for the Study of the Future at the University of Massachusetts. He currently works as an educator and consultant. 

Koster started the night by defining the problem. There are three categories of chemicals that contribute to air pollution, he explained. The first is comprised of gases, including carbon monoxide and ozone, called criteria pollutants. Another is air toxins—substances such as cadmium, mercury and chromium.  The third category is called particulate matter: chemical particles in the air that vary in size from very large to nearly microscopic.  

The air quality index measures particulate matter and criteria pollutants, and large particulate matter is what forms smog. Because air pollution is determined by three distinct groups of chemicals and because particulate matter can be very tiny, a city’s air can look clear but still be very polluted, and particle emission alone contributes to the death of 65,000 Americans per year, Koster said. 

Wind currents and geography can also carry a city’s pollution very far away, he said. For instance, an estimated half of Salisbury’s air pollution was blown here from Atlanta, Ga. This can make it extremely difficult to regulate air pollution, particularly when one is struggling with the issue of state’s rights. 

And it’s not just America, either.

The world’s population is increasing exponentially – a global society that’s built on burning energy fuels that contribute to air pollution.  

Even the way we approach chemicals and pollutants worldwide is different, Koster said. In America, products are taken off the shelf when they’ve been proven to be unsafe, but in the European Union, products aren’t put on the shelf until they’re proven to be safe.  

And air pollution is no joking matter.  

“If you live in a place with dirty air, your life is shorter by almost five months,” Koster said.

The World Health Organization has listed air pollution as the largest environmental health risk in the world. It is estimated to contribute to the deaths of seven million people globally per year.

“It becomes a moral issue,” Koster said, “A moral, global issue.”

But, Koster says, we can’t just deny people access to energy.  We have to be smart about it—and that means policing ourselves before we police others. And America is very bad at policing itself.  

For example, more than 140 chemicals can make their way into our tap water with no enforcement, regulation or oversight. Water and air and pollution can even contribute to birth defects or diseases we experience later in life. Gene expression is linked to the chemicals we are exposed to, even while in utero, Koster says. Like brightening or dimming a light with a knob switch, the things we come into contact with in our lives and while we’re still developing can turn up or turn down our chance of getting certain diseases. 

But there is good news. Many communities have battled with air pollution and triumphed. It doesn’t have to be a death knell. 

“I want to tell you success stories of America’s air pollution battle,” he said.  

Los Angeles, a city notorious for its smog, managed to cut air pollution by 40 percent between 1998 and 2011. As the city’s air cleared, studies also showed a decline in the incidence of asthma among local teens. 

Studies in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and Buffalo, N.Y., have shown that people in polluted environments can increase their life expectancy by five to ten months if the air is clearer.

And from 1990 to 2008 air toxin emissions declined by 62 percent—without having a negative impact on the economy.  Koster says that there are a wide range of things that individuals can do to improve air quality.  Most all of these are related to reducing the combustion of fossil fuels.  They range from easy steps such as making sure your tires are properly inflated. Encourage local officials to pursue energy conservation, and encourage your town to install roundabouts, which have been shown to cut down on traffic accidents and emissions.  And above all, be willing to educate others.

“It is possible to uncouple the consumption of energy from the health of the economy,” Koster said. 

During the same period, energy consumption increased while carbon-dioxide levels decreased. 

And a 20-year compliance review of the 1970 and 1977 Clean Air Acts discovered that the benefits of compliance were 42 times the initial cost. A review of the 1990 amendments to the acts showed a benefit that was 30 times the initial cost. 

And after Mexico City was named the most polluted city in the planet in 1992, it began to make changes. In the ‘90s, Mexico City had an estimated 1,000 deaths per year and 35,000 hospitalizations per year that were the result of complications from air pollution. The city expanded its mass transit system, started using hybrid buses, installed a suburban train, and moved its refineries. By 2010, 28 years later, it was no longer number one—it wasn’t even in the top ten.

Koster says that much of the environmental movement has circled around protecting and preserving species. It’s time to shift focus. It’s time the environmental movement begins focusing on protecting the humans, he says.

So what can you do?

Koster says there are a wide range of things that individuals can do to improve air quality. Most of them are related to reducing the combustion of fossil fuels. They range from easy steps like making sure your tires are properly inflated to encouraging local officials to pursue energy conservation. 

Encouraging your town to install roundabouts is another way to improve air quality. Statistics indicate that they cut down on both traffic accidents and emissions.

Above all, Koster says, be willing to educate others.

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