Air Pollution Respects No Borders

Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution
Beth Gardiner
University of Chicago Press, 2019, 312 pages

A similar kind of story crops up again and again in Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution. From Delhi to London to Los Angeles, and across countless other cities, author Beth Gardiner meets activists, regulators, and scientists whose children struggle to breathe, who keep their kids cooped up indoors on particularly smoggy days, and who are locked in battle with polluting industries.

Air pollution
Air pollution is a universal problem impacting countries around the world. The environmental and health implications, however, are unequally distributed. Photo via pixnio.

Choked makes it abundantly clear that air pollution is a global problem, and not only in the sense that it impacts regions around the globe. Toxic fumes arising in one country drift into another. Particulate matter in one country is emitted to produce goods that are consumed in another. And, she notes, the dirty bunker fuel that powers cargo ships “brings illness and death” to all the ports where these ships dock. Nowhere is clean.

The statistics are startling. Researchers calculate that air pollution is responsible for one of every nine deaths. According to the World Health Organization, “outdoor air pollution kills 4.2 million people a year, while household air pollution, the scourge of developing nations where many cook over open fires, cuts short nearly 4 million lives.”

Expanding scientific knowledge of the biological effects of air pollution also links it with a variety of chronic illnesses. “What I find most unsettling is the damage it does to the brain,” Gardiner writes, referencing links to both dementia and depression.

But despite being a universal problem, the environmental and health implications of air pollution are very unequal. As Gardiner writes, “while dirty air affects everyone who breathes it, some suffer more than others, so this issue is infused with questions of race, class, and fairness.” This is especially clear in the chapter on California’s San Joaquin Valley, where agribusiness concentrates livestock and chemicals in astonishing quantities. People of color, including farmworkers and residents, are disproportionately exposed to the resulting pollution.

Despite the wealth of scientific evidence packed into the book, Choked is an easy read. Gardiner regularly mentions her family and aims to bring a personal element to the storyline, without being obtrusive. The first-person narrative also has its charms. For instance, Gardiner conveys how the Polish people she visits are bemused by her request to watch them fill their coal furnaces, a mundane chore that she finds fascinating.

However, the book can feel a bit overdramatic at times — not in detailing the health and climate effects of air pollution, which are monstrous for sure, but in deploying certain emotions. Gardiner ends the chapter on Krakow, for instance, with a rallying cry for Poles to recapture the proud spirit of anti-communism and apply this to the fight against coal burning. The comparison feels awkward.

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What may be most notable, and most useful, about the book is that despite the bleakness of the situation, Gardiner offers hope. The toughening up of vehicle emission standards in some countries and the decline of smoking rates in others, show that policy and behavioral change can lead to dramatic improvements within a generation. Not to mention the success of the Clean Air Act in the United States. As Gardiner learns from an interview with former EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, “We use far more electricity [and] drive many more miles, than we did in 1970 … but because government has told companies they had to build better power plants and make cleaner cars, the air we breathe is far healthier.”

Gardiner points out that this progress is something of a double-edged sword. Texas, for example, has more blue-sky days than it did a generation ago, making some complacent about air pollution. They assume it’s a problem of the past. One Trump adviser has even said that modern air is “too clean for optimum health.”

Choked suggests ways for all sorts of people to protect their own and others’ health. Planners should build schools along quiet streets, not next to freeways. Joggers should run down side streets rather than busy ones. Politicians should impose tough emission standards to incentivize polluters to invest in technology and swiftly clean up their act. This is urgent, vital work, with repercussions for everyone on the planet.

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