By Kim Robson:
Most of the industrialized world experiences air pollution on a daily basis. If you live in or near a city, you’re breathing fine particulates of soot, exhaust and fumes from a variety of sources. Large cities famous for their “smog” — including Los Angeles, Beijing, and Mexico City — are geographically located inside huge “bowls” ringed with high mountains. These bowls, coupled with heat and stagnant wind conditions, trap and intensify pollution until it can reach critically unhealthy levels, particularly for the sick, young and elderly.
While we commonly call this air pollution “smog,” that’s really a bit of a misnomer. Smog is a portmanteau for the words smoke and fog. When toxic smoke and soot from factories, coupled with unchecked vehicular exhaust, combine with the 100% humidity of thick fog, the results can be suffocating and even deadly.
During four days of December 1952, London’s cold weather combined with windless anticyclone (fog-producing) weather conditions. This combination caused pollutants, mostly from burning coal and diesel fuel, to form a thick layer of suffocating smog over the city. This, in turn, caused a major disruption to the city because of extremely low visibility. (It even penetrating indoor spaces.) Visibility was reduced to a few yards, making ground and air traffic difficult to impossible. One witness recalls, “It was like you were blind.”
In the immediate aftermath, government medical reports estimated that upwards of 4,000 people had prematurely died and 100,000 more fell ill as a direct result of the smog event. More recent research suggests that the total number of indirect fatalities over a longer period of time was considerably greater, approximately 12,000. This “Great Smog of ‘52” led to a number of regulatory changes, including the Clean Air Act 1956.
A similar event, lasting four days in 1948, occurred in Donora, PA, 20 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Smoke from the U.S. Steel Corp., Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel & Wire factory combined with heavy fog. Suddenly, the town’s mere eight doctors were rushing among many of the town’s 14,000 residents who were having trouble breathing. Firefighters and police were delivering oxygen tanks to residents, and firefighters from nearby communities helped keep Donora supplied with oxygen. The pollution killed 20 people and sickened approximately 7,000.
Here in the eco-conscious 21st century, though, such events seem nearly impossible to conceive. However, recently China has been struggling with epic smog events, which have been crippling cities and filling hospitals. Click here to see some stunning before and after photo and satellite visualizations. Countries like China, India, Russia and, yes, the United States are working to various degrees to balance their exuberant industrial growth with even a modicum of environmental concern.
Concerns about the air quality in Beijing, particularly for the athletes prior to the 2008 summer Olympic Games, prompted authorities to remove 60,000 taxis and buses from the roads before the end of 2007, and to relocate 200 local factories, including a prominent steel factory. Then, at the 11th hour, in July 2008, stricter emergency pollution controls went into place. These included suspending production at more factories and coal-fired power plants, reducing commercial vehicle traffic, and restricting travel to nearby Tianjin. Beijing also ordered 40 factories in Tianjin and 300 factories in Tangshan to temporarily suspend operations. License plate restrictions allowed Beijing motorists to drive on alternate days only.
Research studies by an international team of scientists led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) shows that China’s restrictions during that two-month period dramatically cut carbon dioxide emissions by upwards of 96,000 metric tons.
And now we’re hearing about critically dangerous smog crippling cities in China once again. The northeastern city of Harbin has now smashed previous record levels in Beijing. Harbin effectively shut down after fine particulates reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter (40 times the safety level recommended by the World Health Organization). Schools, highways and airports were closed, as visibility in some areas of the city dropped to less than 10 meters. Residents covered their mouths with masks and scarves and moved like ghosts through the haze. Vehicles crawled slowly through traffic, as traffic lights were barely visible.
This was right on the heels of the recent news that WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified air pollution as a carcinogen. There is sufficient evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer and an increased risk of bladder cancer. Dangerous exposures have increased significantly, particularly in “rapidly industrial countries with large populations” such as China.
“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” Dr. Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Section, said in a press release. “We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”
China’s state news agency Xinhua had admitted to links between respiratory illnesses and smog. Doctors have warned that Harbin will see an increased number of people seeking treatment after the high levels of pollution there.
The equation seems simple to me: Population density + Rampant industrial growth + Unfortunate weather conditions = DEATH.