Friday, August 12, 2011

Breathe deep, our polluted air could use a filter

Air quality in the San Joaquin Valley regularly registers in the unhealthy range.

I'm quite familiar with this because I run every day. When at about 2 or 3 miles it feels like somebody's punched me in the throat and chest (and I feel decent otherwise), I know it's a bad air day.

Air quality is just an indicator, a very noticeable one, that's saying, "Hey, chill on the pollution." We're topping off on bad ozone, the colorless gas that forms near the ground when the emissions of cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries and chemical plants react chemically in sunlight. There's also an increasing load of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particle pollution.

Runner's cough

At first, I thought I was just getting old. I'm 50. But then I started asking around. No, runners say, you feel bad probably because of the air. This is Fresno, they say, where the nearby majestic Sierra are often masked by haze of murky gray/white/brown.

News reports here never fail to record the ups and downs of the color-coded Air Quality Index. Moderate means it will be a good day. But we take the next level, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, in stride and only occasionally rebel when we're told it reaches the next level of just plain Unhealthy.

Giving doctors more business

We're tough. Sure. Our air gives our kids asthma and fills doctors' offices with a raft of health maladies. Both my strapping sons have asthma. My 18-year-old, Calvin, finally was tested and was determined to have horrible allergies to just about everything carried in the air and a nasty case of asthma.

He hadn't been able to run more than maybe 2 miles without collapsing. I thought, "What a wuss." I was wrong. Not the first time. With medication he's now powering through easy sub 7-minute miles at 95 degrees with ease. I should have known. This kid has no body fat, was a gymnast, then a diver when he got too big for the constant flips.

But drugs aren't really a solution. I developed asthma too since my move here, and taking prescription drugs just makes me feel like I'm deteriorating.

Asthma on the rise

In an interview with, Paul Epstein, a doctor at Harvard Medical School and author of "Changing Planet, Changing Health," said that asthma and allergies are on the rise. The reason: increasing CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Epstein said cases of asthma in the United States have more than doubled since 1980.

And the increased harshness of the seasons -- hotter in the summer, colder in the winter -- are driving other problems like more weeds and bugs. Wonderful stuff.

All in all, it's not altogether encouraging. But I'm an optimistic guy; sometimes my wife calls it unrealistic.

Solutions are available

There is a solution to all this. The mantra reduce, reuse, recycle is just a start. We've got more in the tool box. Energy efficiency measures are now pretty readily available to just about anyone. I'm now replacing all my halogen lighting fixtures when they blow out with the miserly LED bulbs. They're more expensive but they use way less electricity.

Solar technology is making significant advances in affordability and efficiency and soon may be reasonable enough for slow adopters like me to say, "OK, what the heck?" I'm personally intrigued by the possibility of super efficient solar panels on the roof of an electric vehicle rendering it permanently mobile until the sun goes down. Then battery power would offer 100-mile range.

Yet, I'm old school. I still believe we have an inescapable future dependent upon burning stuff. That alliance will continue I'm told, whether I like it or not. I still get a charge out of starting a blazing fire in a wood stove or camp site, good smokey flames get rid of bugs. And petroleum has its benefits. For instance, I love my cars.

However, I'd love to break the death grip the Middle East has on our economy, our transportation network and our elected officials. Efficiencies could lessen that and alternatives like biofuels and even natural gas give us options.

Ringing the bell

While the debate over our fuel/alternative fuel mix is important, the fact is we as a society still need to reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere. That little thing called climate change keeps ringing the bell. My hacking cough reminds me that clean air would be a good thing.

Funny how I never thought how good I had it as a kid. Either beachcombing on Kodiak Island or clamboring over ancient gold mining equipment in Ester, Alaska, the clean air never registered.

I took it for granted. Now I can't.

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