Rich and I are fervent recyclers. We’re constantly looking for ways to reduce our footprint, such as buying less packaging, chipping leaves and branches to make mulch, and perusing local Goodwill stores for slightly used books, clothing, cooking utensils, and collectibles.
One of my favorite “green” locales is the “magazine exchange” in Mount Vernon. Okay, it’s not really an exchange. It’s the local recycling center, but they usually have a large dumpster brimming with slightly read magazines. I routinely remove three to four magazines for each one I deposit. And most times, someone has tossed out a stack of older National Geographic.
I fish these gems out like a child reaching in a candy barrel. Most times, they end up on a bookshelf until I run out of reading materials. A month ago, I started reading a National Geographic from April 1987.
Reading a magazine that’s nearly twenty three old has its pros and cons. The pro is that you can learn how far technology, medicine and other sciences have progresses. An article that espouses the computational power of a PC in 1987 is laughable today.
The con is that you can learn how environments, animal life, and manmade infrastructure have deteriorated or cease to exist. The initial article in the magazine was about the high Andes in Chili and Bolivia. Many of the same issues exist today when it comes to healthcare, exploitation of natural resources, and quality of life.
The article “Seals and Their Kin” discuss the horrors of debris such as fishing nets and plastics in the ocean that contribute to the death of seals and sea lions. The story hasn’t changed.
I had to ease into the article “AIR an atmosphere of uncertainty” because many of the issues twenty three years ago are no different today. Even more sobering, decisions that were made in 1987 weren’t always in the best interest of communities and the environment.
For instance, the article discussed the town of Casmalia near Santa Barbara, California. At the time, chemicals – cyanide, oil field acids, pesticides, and industrial solvents – were being dumped in an open lagoon at a toxic waste dump. The 200 citizens in the town complained of noxious smells and respiratory problems. The director of the state health services, however, decided the dump posed no imminent danger to people and should remain open.
No doubt, the three million dollars of fees that the county collected every year from the facility influenced their decision to overlook current and potential issues.
Two years after the article was written the toxic waste dump was closed because of numerous permit violations. A few years later, the dump became a Superfund site that was overseen by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Around 4.5 billion pounds of hazardous waste from around 10,000 individuals, businesses and government agencies were buried at the site.
In August 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, published, “Our Common Future,” a report that laid the groundwork for the 1992 Earth Summit and establishment of the Commission on Sustainable Development. What the commission probably overlooked at the time was the rapid growth of what was considered second and third world nations such as China and Brazil.
In 1987, China produced few pollutants as compared to developed nations. A decade earlier the Cultural Revolution had come to an end with the death of Mao Se Tung and the arrest of the Gang of Four. China has since become the world’s second largest energy consumer behind the United States. About 70 percent of its energy needs include the use of “dirty” coal. Twenty of the world’s thirty most polluted cities are in now China. In addition, 90 percent of China’s cities suffer from some degree of water pollution and nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.
While advances and availability of healthcare and improved nutrition has boost life expectancies and reduced infant mortality in China, these advances have been counterbalanced by a marked increased in respiratory problems as a result of widespread air pollutions and millions of cigarette smokers. Today, industrial pollution, particularly of the air, is a significant health hazard in China.
In 1987, 65,000 commercial components, each a proven carcinogen, entered the environment. At the time, Cubatão, Brazil was considered the most polluted place on the earth and had earned the distinction of being called the “Valley of Death.” Scores of manufacturing and processing plants spewed at least 75 pollutants into the acrid air. According to an article written in 2000 by Reuters Limited, “At the base of tropic mountains as green and dense as broccoli lies Cubatão, lies a city many Brazilians still know as the place where babies were born without brains 20 years ago. Cubatão’s chimneys still belch smoke and flames into the air 24 hours a day and a stale industrial odor lingers.”
The article continues, elaborating on bladder cancer being six times more prevalent in Cubatão and neighboring cities. Cancers of the nervous system, including the brain, were four time more widespread, and lung, throat, mouth, and pancreatic were twice as high.
Even though pollution controls have been implemented, and by 2000 the micrograms of particles per cubic meter of air had been reduced from 100 micrograms in 1984 to 48, the air and toxin-saturated soil and groundwater continue to be a health hazard for the 120,000 residents of Cubatão.
It easy to dismiss what happening in another country as “their problem,” but the reality is that the United States is equally polluted. The New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (NJPIRG) reported in 2002 that New Jersey had the worst air pollution in the country. According to the report, “Every resident in New Jersey’s 21 counties lives with unhealthy levels of ozone, [which] causes chest pain and coughing, aggravate asthma, reduce lung function and lead to irreversible lung damage.”
During an ozone alert day – one out of every three days during the summer of 2002 – there was a 20 percent increase in emergency room visits by asthmatics, 30 percent of which were children. In addition, during bad-air days in New Jersey, the mortality rate of senior citizens increases as labored breathing triggers strokes and heart attacks.
In 1987, according to the article in National Geographic, twenty automobiles, including those built before 1975 without catalytic converters, emit the equivalence of 525 pounds of lead in exhaust fumes during their average life span of ten years. Fast forward fifteen years to New Jersey and forty percent of smog pollution is attributed to passenger cars and trucks – the largest source of air pollution in the state. At the time, President George W. Bush and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authorized a serious roll-back of the Clean Air Act that paved the way for more pollution from power plants in New Jersey and across the nation.
The State of New Jersey, however, wasn’t ready to concede that pollution was a given. Instead, they worked to pass the New Jersey Clean Cars bill in early 2004, which legislated reducing air toxics by 23 percent more than the federal emission standards through stricter car emissions standards and the promotion of cleaner, advanced technology vehicles.
Five years later, the “Cash for Clunkers” program took 700,000 gas-guzzling cars off the road by providing cash incentives for consumers to purchase more full efficient cars. It’s estimated that the program will cut total carbon-dioxide emissions by 9 million metric tons over the next 25 years.
When National Geographic published the article “AIR an atmosphere of uncertainty” in 1987, the EPA’s National Air Quality and Emissions Trend Report noted that nearly 80 million people live in countries where ozone levels exceed air-quality standards, 61 million breathe too much carbon monoxide, and 32.6 million share air space with too many particles. These findings created a call-to-action by many countries who can proudly proclaim that they’ve put in places regulations, standards, and technologies to reduce pollutants. For other countries, industrialization, at any costs, superseded potential health hazards.
David Pimental, a professor of ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, examined data from more than 120 published papers on the effects of population growth, malnutrition, and various kinds of environmental degradation on human diseases. In 2007, his published findings in Science Daily, showed that 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air, and soil pollution. According to Pimental, this environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world populations, contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 million people.
From a pollution point-of-view, according to Pimental’s research, 1.2 billion people lack clean water, leading to the death of 1.2 million to 2.7 million people a year from waterborne infections and toxins. Add another 3 million deaths per year from air pollution (carbon dioxide and other gases) and 5 million annual deaths from unsanitary living conditions (half of which are children) and you begin to wonder why people are more concerned with swine flu and HIV/AIDS than the effects of pollution.
Yet, in 2010, segments of the population are denying the obvious connection between pollution and health issues, climate changes, and the end product, global warming. Reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions – from industry, transportation and energy use – can both slow climate change and improve the health of people worldwide.
Many of these changes can be implemented on a small scale. Kirk R. Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley, proposed replacing the solid fuel stoves in 150 million households in India with low-emission stove technologies. Over a ten year period, this change could prevent 2 million premature deaths and reduce greenhouse pollution by hundreds of millions tons.
Go to Fox News, however, and the debate isn’t about environmental degradation and the corollary to climate change, but the validity of scientific research. An article published on December 8, 2009, Surprise, Surprise, Many Scientists Disagree on Global Warning, reports “There is hardly unanimity among scientists about global warming or mankind’s role in producing it. But you wouldn’t know it if you just listened to the Obama administration.”
The article cites a petition signed by 30,000 American scientists that urge the United States government to reject the Kyoto treaty that aims to reduce greenhouse gas concentrates that contribute to global warming. Anyone, however, can sign the petition whether you have a PhD, MD or no initials after your name. Check out the number of “Bush’s” on the list of “B” signers.
Whether you believe in global warming or are so naïve to believe that higher temperatures are actual good for increasing agriculture and people’s health, denial only goes so far. Pollution is unhealthy. It doesn’t matter whether polar bears are dying because the ice caps are melting, reducing their ability to get food, or if high levels of pollutants in their fat is hampering their immune and reproductive systems. The polar bears are dying. People around the world are dying. What’s left to question?