Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Stagnant Air: Don't Piss in the Bath

Mainers and the tourist hordes may have heard a cryptic warning of "stagnant air advisory" on the radio this morning. And indeed, the National Weather Service has colored the coast of Maine a dark shade of gray on this morning's weather map (right).

The simple explanation is that low wind speeds and high levels of UV radiation will force us to stew in our own juices for the duration of the day. The ozone will be particularly bad: as of 8 AM, ozone levels at Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth were already twice as high as they were among the oil refineries of Texas City near Houston, an area that typically leads the nation in ozone pollution. And this was before the morning commute, when Maine motorists will send thousands of tons of volatile organic compounds out of their exhaust pipes to bake in the hot summer sun.

If you were planning on breathing today, you'll be more likely to suffer from the various effects of ozone pollution: coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, headaches, general listlessness, aggravated pulmonary conditions, etcetera, etcetera. The Maine economy will probably lose a couple of million dollars to lost productivity today, and our lungs will age a little faster.

Since they're warning us not to exert ourselves outdoors, it seems like a good day to sit inside and think about air pollution instead.

Air pollution has always been a difficult cause for environmentalism. For one thing, you can't really see it. By most objective standards, cleaner air is more important than preserving a wilderness area in Alaska. But the Nature Conservancy can print glossy photography of unbroken forests to open philanthropists' wallets, while the American Lung Association is left behind quoting dry statistics on childhood asthma.

The other problem with air pollution as an environmental cause is the fact that our atmosphere is so big. You wouldn't want to piss in your own bathtub, but it doesn't seem as revolting when a cruise ship dumps tons of raw sewage at sea. Similarly, there aren't many non-addicts who would willingly spend time in a small, cramped smoker's lounge, but there's nothing especially disgusting about spewing a few hundred pounds of VOCs out from the tailpipe every day. Because we share the atmosphere with the entire world, we discount the marginal effects of our own behavior.

But today is different. Stagnant air means that we kind of are our pissing in our own bathtub when we burn our fossil fuels. It may get better tomorrow, when the winds return, but that just means that all this crap will be blowing someplace else. The atmosphere may be really, really big, but so is our capacity to foul it.


Jess said...

Among other side effects, ozone pollution is like a sunburn on your lungs. It feels like the painful feeling you get after running in the cold, except that the burning feeling remains for hours, rather than passing in a few minutes.

Ed said...

Great article. The Am Lung Assoc has often said that if air pollution arrived in Maine in dump trucks, people would be throwing their bodies across the Turnpike to keep it out. Since it is odorless, colorless and arrives by air, somehow we dont get as angry at what is happening.
Ed Miller CEO Am Lung Assoc