We Are the Air

May 26, 2000

By Michael Jessen

"Air is a physical substance; it embraces us so intimately that it is hard to say where we leave off and air begins. Inside as well as outside we are minutely designed for the central activity of our existence -- drawing the atmosphere into the centre of our being, deep into the moist, delicate membranous labyrinth within our chests, and putting it to use." -- David Suzuki, The Sacred Balance.

With every breath we take, we sustain our lives. Our upper bodies are essentially one big air trap, as David Suzuki describes his book 'The Sacred Balance.' Breathing is an immensely complex process, controlled by an unconscious part of the brain.

Maybe because we breathe involuntarily, we tend to take it for granted. We pollute our atmosphere, forgetting our lungs crave clean air. Minute particles of dirty air can become trapped in our honeycomb-like alveoli and eventually kill us.

The importance of air and the necessity for keeping it breathable is the focus of Clean Air Day, which will be celebrated across Canada on June 7th.

Human activities have greatly changed the air. One child in five in Canada has asthma and air pollutants adversely affect the health of more than 4 billion people worldwide. Air quality in some cities forces many citizens to wear masks. About 4 billion people in developing countries who cook with wood and coal over open fires suffer continuous exposure to smoke. Wood smoke is estimated to cause the death of 4 million children each year.

As the world's auto makers rush to produce cars that emit water rather than fumes, the planet's existing motor vehicles -- already growing approximately three times faster than the world population -- could form a six-lane highway to the moon. Their exhausts contribute to smog alerts during summer in many cities.

In a report issued May 23 -- entitled "State of the Air 2000" -- the American Lung Association says more than 132 million Americans could be at risk for health problems because they live in communities with dangerously high smog levels. Metropolitan areas and counties were graded on the number of days they had unhealthy smog levels in the years 1996 to 1998, the most recent years for which Environmental Protection Agency figures are available.

Smog, or ozone, results mainly from the action of sunlight on hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides in vehicle and industrial emissions. Although vehicle exhaust is getting cleaner, the number of miles Americans are driving is increasing 2% each year, says Ron White of the lung association.

California's Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County metropolitan area had the nation's worst air quality with an F grade, but Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Baltimore-Washington were not far behind. Metropolitan areas earning an A grade in ozone levels from the lung association included Honolulu, Colorado Springs, and Spokane, Washington.

Burning of fossil fuels has pumped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in quantities beyond the capability of the Earth to reabsorb. The result is global warming and climate change. The increase in severe weather events like hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes has even the insurance industry clamoring for action.

Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February, said climate change would contribute to the death of millions of people.

"We're seeing the first signs that global climate change can influence the incidences of human disease," said Pimentel. "This change, combined with population growth and environmental degradation, will probably intensify world malnutrition and increases in other diseases as well."

Pimentel's prediction that increasing climate change will result in a net loss of available food is already proving true for Alaska Natives. A scientific gathering two weeks ago heard that large populations of seabirds are dying and that thinning sea ice is probably triggering population declines for walruses, seals, and other flippered sea mammals. The Natives said the climate changes are making it harder for them to maintain their subsistence lifestyles.

On Clean Air Day, you can take your first steps to change the picture. Walk to work or school that day. Try it again the next day and the next. If walking isn't practical, try carpooling, carsharing, cycling, or that reliable standby -- public transportation. The Slocan Valley and handydart bus service will be half price and people in Nelson and the North Shore can ride the bus for free on Clean Air Day.

Take the commuter challenge and your workplace could win valuable prizes for having the most employees leave their cars at home. "Last year, 355 people faxed their names to City Hall and let us know they made a choice to take another form of transportation," says Evelyn Riechert, one of the CAD organizers. "This year we hope twice as many will leave their car at home for the day."

In Nelson, the 400-block of Baker Street will host a Share the Air Street Fair where residents can learn of the myriad of ways they can contribute to clean air -- from stopping smoking cigarettes to cleaning the chimney regularly. Displays will include low emission vehicles available from local auto dealers. The Nelson CAD group have raised more than $9,000 with contributions from the City of Nelson, the Regional District of Central Kootenay (areas E and F), BC Transit, Environment Canada's Climate Change Action Fund, and the provincial Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks.

Old air is recycled and reused. Air that exits your nose goes up your neighbour's nose. The longer we live the more likely we will absorb some of the atoms that were once part of Gandhi, Jesus Christ, Joan of Arc, or the dinosaurs. Our air will create our link to our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Let's give them clean air.

"Every breath is a sacrament, an essential ritual. As we imbibe this sacred element, we are physically linked to all of our present biological relatives, countless generations that have preceded us and those that will follow. Out fate is bound to that of the planet by the gaseous exhausts of fires, volcanoes and human-made machines and industry." -- David Suzuki, The Sacred Balance.

ONE SMALL STEP - Every spring and fall, people contribute to global warming by burning grass or other types of garden waste like tree trimmings. If you can't compost it in your own yard, landfills and transfer stations in the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary accept this type of material for free, while the charge in the Regional District of Central Kootenay is only $2.00 per truck load. E-mail Minister of Forests Jim Doyle at Jim.Doyle.Office@leg.bc.ca and tell him to encourage alternative uses for forest waste and stop the annual slash burning that clouds Kootenay skies.

RESOURCES - 'The Sacred Balance' by David Suzuki is published by Greystone Books. The organization Global Change maintains a web site of articles and resources about global warming at http://www.globalchange.org/. The Global Climate Coalition (http://www.globalclimate.org/) is a group of private companies and trade associations concerned with the potential costs of global warming remedies. The big three auto makers -- Ford, General Motors, and Daimler/Chrysler -- as well as Texaco recently quit the lobbying group that has led the opposition to a 1997 global warming treaty reached in Kyoto, Japan. A "Beginner's Guide to the United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol" is available at http://www.unep.ch/iuc/.

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.