Plan for a More Sustainable Phoenix, Part II – Air Quality

     One of the growing health concerns for many major metropolitan areas is air quality. Since the Industrial Revolution, the issue of smog in cities, and air contaminants and gases from factories, industry and transportation has threatened the general wellness of many American populations. This is an especially sensitive issue in Arizona right now. Last year, azcentral.com reported that Phoenix was second-worst in the nation among major cities for harmful air quality (Metro Phoenix Air now rated 2nd-worst in U.S.).

        How did it get this bad? Many people blame the ever-expanding freeway systems, too many cars on the road, and industry. But industry hasn’t really been a major contributor for the last 70 years or so, as we have seen an epic decline in things that are actually made in Phoenix. The problem very likely also has something to do with dust. Wide fields that were once home to native desert plants (which helped prevent erosion and keep the surface dirt in place) have been wiped clear. With every construction project, or field-clearing for new developments—even farmland before seeds are sown—vast fields of desert sand/soil/dirt are left exposed to the wind. Some people seem to think that the massive haboobs we’ve experienced in the past 10 years must just be some random force or change in nature. They are wrong if they think human activity on the land hasn’t contributed to this phenomenon.

    The irony is, Arizona’s wide-open desert skies and dry air once attracted people who were ailing from calamities such as asthma and tuberculosis. “Once a haven for TB sufferers seeking respiratory relief, by 2005, the Valley’s infamous Brown Cloud was drawing the lowest national grades from the American Lung Association for air quality in both ozone and particulates, and in 2010 reclaimed the number one slot for dust pollution after a few years of improvement in reducing ozone levels” (Ross p. 5). Due to mankind’s activity, the quality of our hot, dry, local air has declined. Because of excesses of dust, particulates, and gases such as CO2, and nitrous oxide being pumped into the atmosphere at astronomical levels, Phoenix is no longer paradise for those who are hard of breathing.

     It is true, one of the greatest detractors to the quality of local air is the amount of automobile usage. Of the top five most common harmful air pollutants (CO, NO2, O2, particulate matter and SO2), guess which ones automobiles emit. It is estimated that the average vehicle owner in the U.S. drives about 12,000 miles per year, and that people in the greater Phoenix area alone use more than 1,089 gallons of gasoline per household annually (Kahn 2006, p. 115). When more fossil fuels are burned, more “greenhouse gases” are released. These cause ill health effects, and prolonged exposure can be deadly. Though today’s cars and trucks burn fuel more efficiently and cleaner, “…the sheer quantity of vehicle miles driven results in large releases of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons into the air” (Frumkin 2002, p. 202). Nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons, when exposed to sunlight (which Phoenix has an abundance of), form ozone. Ozone is an irritant to healthy humans, and higher levels of ozone in an area have been known to lead to more incidences and more severe cases of respiratory symptoms, decreased lung functions, higher need for medication, higher numbers of doctor visits, and more days missed from school and work by members of the population. The effects of ozone intake are also much worse for people with asthma, lung cancer, the very young, the very aged, and people with other respiratory and cardiopulmonary diseases (p. 202).

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