Air pollution is a global phenomenon – seeing is believing

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Around the time of the first Earth Day, we spent a couple of summers in New Jersey teaching a high school environmental course sponsored by a local environmental organization. The sun never rose that summer. Instead, in mid-morning, an icy, white light appeared in the ashy sky. It was a shock to us.

We also did an environmental inventory of the Meadowlands for the same organization to gather data to use as testimony in an effort to protect them from further filling with construction debris and continued encroachment from development. We assume the data was later used in an unsuccessful effort to block what became known as the NFL’s Meadowlands Stadium.

Since it was a private school near Bernardsville, populated by influential corporate leaders, we had casual discussions with them regarding environmental issues. An oil company executive indicated his firm’s willingness to meet environmental standards if they applied across the United States. His main interests were by having uniform national standards so oil refineries could be built wherever industry chose.

Later when we drove along the Jersey shore we were shocked by the extensive collection of fire and smoke belching oil refineries. Beyond the shock was the thought that even with federal standards the ever-expanding reliance on oil and its byproducts would offset the benefits of limited regulations.

Years later, we spent a week in Mexico City at an auto emissions conference aimed at finding solutions to the ever-increasing levels of smog engulfing the city. When we arrived during the early evening we did not realize the surrounding mountains could be seen from our room. The next morning we were surprised to have a clear view of the mountains but watched a mass of smog slowly rise up the mountainside eventually obscuring them from view as the volume of auto traffic steadily climbed.

Among the many potential solutions being discussed was a proposal to cut holes in the surrounding mountains to allow the smog to escape into the countryside. Another was to limit the number of days a car could be driven into the city during the week to lessen traffic density. A policy was implemented toward that end but local citizens bought second, older cars to drive on the days they could not drive their first car. The older cars emitted far more pollution and the plan was scrapped.

We saw similar blankets of smog in Lima and Tokyo. In Tokyo we were surprised by the omnipresent face masks on citizens in an attempt to limit the impacts of air pollution. Additionally, a friend who within the past year traveled to Phoenix reported seeing smog rising over the city in the early morning as he drove down the mountainside.

While air pollution levels in some cities in China and India now hit the headlines, the problem in other places has not disappeared; it is just not as bad in comparison to the worst. As the quest for fossil fuel consumption and elimination of environmental standards gains headway in the United States pollution levels could rise dramatically here.

We travel far less these days as our work no longer requires it. But those experiences made it abundantly clear that human activities do have an impact on the global environment. And while the impacts of climate change are not directly visible, the associated problems are real and extremely costly but unseen in the price of gasoline and other fossil fuels. Since marketplace solutions have failed to correct pollution problems, prices that include pollution costs and effective, properly enforced regulations are essential to protecting our health and that of the planet.

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