Chapter 14 – Air

She [mother] took us out in the yard one day and asked us
if we knew the price of eggs, of apples, of bananas.
Then she asked us to put a price on clean air,
the sunshine, the song of birds—
and we were stunned.
Ralph Nader 

Air, the most essential element for life. Once dependably clean, alas, unpolluted air can no longer be taken for granted. Many of our homes and offices have unhealthful air caused by improper ventilation, outgassing from capet and furniture, emissions from equipment. Numerous modern buildings have what has become known as “sick building syndrome.” Fungi and bacteria in ventilation ducts and gases produced by man-made materials in tight buildings with inadequate fresh air intake may only cause headaches, sore throats and shortness of breath. If the fresh-air intake of a sealed building is close to the cooling tower of another, the fine mist, called drift, may cause bacterial infections as serious as Legionnaires’ disease.

A study by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that living in a city with even moderately sooty air may shorten life spans of residents by a year, possibly longer (Energy Times, 11-12-95).

In certain natural areas the air can actually improve health and alertness. Tony Hiss reports that experiments have shown that “. . . unscented air, if it contains a certain quantity of small-air ions—clusters of molecules with a negative electrical charge—can also have the effect of a drug, lowering the amount of serotonin in the midbrain; high levels of serotonin are associated with sleepiness. . . . mountains, forests, and streams . . . naturally have an abundance of small-air ions.”

Forests are clean-air factories. Natural areas produce carbon dioxide from decaying vegetation. Living trees utilize carbon dioxide and sunlight through the miracle of photosynthesis to create growth and oxygen. Fortunate are those who live in a forest.

Best-quality air is immediately downwind from where natural conditions cleanse air and create oxygen. Landforms may create exceptions to that. The West Coast receives prevailing winds coming in off the ocean, fairly clean air. But because of the hills surrounding the Los Angeles basin, pollutants from factories and vehicles linger, creating very unhealthful air conditions. Mile-high Denver has a similar condition.

After wafting across the Pacific, West Coast air is generally clean until it encounters industrial and vehicular pollution. Midwest air is a combination of winds down from Canada and up off the Gulf of Mexico in addition to the prevailing westerlies from the Great Plains, primarily agricultural land. Most of the wind path is sparsely populated and relatively clean except for drift from farm spraying. Much of the eastern states, especially downwind of industrial centers have relatively poor air quality.

Some areas have such bad air that the American Lung Association is suing the Environmental Protection Agency for not enforcing standards of the Clean Air Act (National Public Radio, 4-29-94). The EPA sometimes seems more sensitive to commercial entities than common citizens. Do not depend on bureaucrats to ensure your clean air.

It is is of prime importance to find a place with healthful air conditions. Study the wind and storm maps and become aware of pollution sources for your preferred areas. Then avoid considering areas downwind from air pollution producers. See Chapter 27—Places and conditions to avoid. Also read Chapter 28—Toxic pollution.

Resources and recommended reading

EPA Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Hotline: 800-535-0202.
Reports on local pollution rates, in addition to contaminated landfills, toxic waste sites, and polluted lakes and beaches.

American Lung Association: 800-LUNG-USA.

  • Hiss, Tony. The Experience of Place. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
  • Hall, Bob and Mary Lee Kerr. 1991-1992 Green Index: A State-By-State Guide to the Nation’s Environmental Health. Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1991.

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