Quirks & Quarks·Bob McDonald's blog

Dealing with pollution that is not in our face

When we can't see it or smell it, we too often ignore it
A man walks near the Shougang steel mills in Qianan in northern China's Hebei province. China is struggling with its pollution problem, but has engaged with it more seriously recently. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

A recent experience I had with some bad air was a reminder of how quickly we tend to deal with pollution that affects us immediately, but are not so good at getting rid of invisible contaminants that affect the future.

On a cool morning earlier this week, while approaching a local coffee shop, my eyes began to water. That's not too unusual in cooler air, but as I approached the door, something caught in my throat, triggering an immediate cough. It felt like I had inhaled a piece of dirt that was digging sharply into the back of my throat and wouldn't come out.

As I entered the building, the irritation got worse and I found myself having a coughing fit, while my eyes continued to stream even harder. Not wanting to cough all over a restaurant, I turned to leave. But I noticed several other people inside were also in distress.

One person turned to the group with red-shot, runny eyes and asked, "What's going on?"

As soon as I left the building and moved away, all symptoms immediately vanished. Clearly, there was something nasty in the air. Indeed, when I passed by later, the front of the building was blocked off and a service truck for a heating and air conditioning service was parked behind the barrier. They were clearly investigating, and, hopefully solving the problem given its seriousness.

This experience goes to show that when it comes to pollution that is literally in our face, we are pretty good at dealing with it because the consequences are immediate. But when those consequences are long term, we're not quite so attentive.

Throughout history

Nelson's Column during the Great Smog of London, 1952 (N T Stobbs, cc-by-sa-3.0)
In 1952, the city of London England was enveloped in a thick, toxic fog, that reduced visibility to a few metres, choked the city for days and caused thousands of deaths. The fog was due to a combination of a temperature inversion in the atmosphere and smoke from the widespread use of coal in homes and industry.

It was the deadliest pollution event in European history, and it prompted the British government to introduce a new clean air act in 1956 that restricted coal burning and provided grants for homeowners to convert to cleaner technologies. Today the air over the British capital is clear.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, Los Angeles suffered frequent and increasing episodes of brown smog. This was caused by the geography of the L.A. basin, trapping industrial pollution and emissions from vehicle exhaust, which was then transformed into smog by L.A.'s constant sunshine.

Once again, the problem was tackled. California became a test bed for new environmental regulations, which led to the toughest clean air standards in the country, and forced catalytic converters on vehicles to catch offensive emissions before they leave the tailpipe.

The problem with 'seeing is believing'

When pollution is in our face — when we can see it and even taste it — remedial action is more likely to happen. Laws are put in place, technology evolves, attitudes change, and the results of that action are clearly visible. We literally breathe easier.

The exhaust pipe of a car in Erfurt, Germany (Jens Meyer/Associated Press)

The coffee shop experience was stunning to me because the contaminant, whatever it was, had no smell or taste. It was completely invisible. And when it comes to invisible pollution that does not have an immediate effect, we are not so quick to deal with it.

Carbon dioxide is tasteless and colourless. You can't see it in the air, and it doesn't choke you when you breathe it. In fact, it is a necessary ingredient for plant life on the planet. And as human activity adds more of it to the atmosphere, the effects are long term.  Year by year, you notice little change - but as the decades pass, the impact becomes more obvious. The climate warms, weather patterns change, storms become more intense, forest fires more common, oceans become warmer and more acidic, coral reefs bleach and the list goes on.

But none of these effects are in our face like choking fog or smog was.The air still looks clear, so we delay taking action and leave the long-term consequences of rising carbon emissions to future generations.

Short-term thinking vs. long-term consequences 

Our attitude toward carbon emissions is like maintenance on a vehicle. We pay a lot of attention to the amount of gas in the tank because when it runs out, the car stops. But we try to get away with not checking or changing the oil as often as we could because the car can keep running for quite a while on dirty oil. The long-term negative effect on the engine is eclipsed by the short-term benefit of getting to a destination until the engine needs an expensive overhaul and we regret not taking action sooner. 

We're applying the same delaying tactic to reducing carbon emissions. Short-term economic benefits from selling fossil fuels are put above long-term environmental consequences.

To our credit, we have dealt with some invisible pollutants in the past. In the 1980's, lakes in eastern Canada and the US were turning unnaturally clear and fish were disappearing due to acid rain. The culprit was sulphur dioxide from industrial smoke stacks that was combining with water in the atmosphere to form sulphuric acid. Since then, scrubbers have been added to smokestacks to reduce emissions and lakes are recovering.

As acid rain declines, more dissolved organic carbon is staining lakes and rivers brown. (Donald Monteith)

Around the same time, scientists told us the Earth's ozone layer was being destroyed by CFCs, chemicals used in air conditioning and some manufacturing processes. Most people had never heard of ozone or CFCs but thanks to an education campaign that informed the public about the role of ozone as a natural sunscreen that protects us from harmful UV radiation from the Sun, governments got together and signed the Montreal Protocol, banning CFCs worldwide. 

Scientists have been warning about the consequences of carbon emissions for decades. Governments have signed multiple agreements to reduce them, but action had been slow and targets repeatedly pushed back, largely because of the huge - but short term - economic benefits of burning coal, oil, and natural gas. Alternatives are available, but it will take long-term thinking to put them in place. Hopefully, we won't wait until those more serious long-term consequences are in our face. But that kind of thinking seems to be lacking at the moment.


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