For Californians who live, work and breathe in the state’s industrial zones, the future is already here. The disastrous health effects they experience from pollution are a preview of what will happen everywhere as climate change becomes a routine fact of life, and as the planet gets hotter, carbon levels continue to climb and air quality progressively worsens.
To cite one example, the heat-trapping carbon dioxide emitted from tailpipes and factories collects over cities, creating CO2 “domes” that shroud the urban cores in toxic clouds of pollutants. Research on air quality in New York, Phoenix and Baltimore shows that ambient CO2 parts per million (ppm) levels can spike into the 400s, 500s and 600s, which climate modelers predict will become the norm in 20 to 30 years. Right now, the global average is 393 ppm.
As temperatures rise and more pollutants are dumped into the atmosphere, the plume of that toxic cloud will broaden like ink on a blotter, covering more land under a suffocating carbon canopy. A 2010 Stanford University study found that these domes act like pressure cookers, exacerbating pollution’s harmful health effects, and may already be responsible for up to 1,000 excess deaths across the country, the equivalent of two jumbo jet crashes every single year.
And it will just go from bad to worse in the coming decades, as the Earth gets warmer. Two of the chief culprits behind asthma and allergies — air pollution and smog — will only intensify as the temperatures rise. The result is ozone smog, a toxic brew created as sunlight cooks the mix of pollutants and particles in the atmosphere.
As the air heats up, more ozone is produced. Increasing levels of ozone, in turn, trap more heat, exacerbating the urban heat island effect: Cities are normally about five to 10 degrees hotter than surrounding suburbs because asphalt and cement absorb sunlight, generating a vicious cycle of escalating pollution and heat.
Higher levels of ozone smog, toxic to the lining of the lungs, will also boost the incidence of respiratory diseases. A 2009 study done by European scientists looked at hospital admission data from 12 major cities including Dublin, London, Barcelona, Athens and Rome from at least a three-year period. They found that for every 1-degree Celsius (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature increase, hospitalizations from respiratory- and asthma-related illnesses rose by 4.5 percent.
Chronic exposure to elevated levels of ozone has a serious cumulative effect. Ozone in the upper atmosphere normally forms a protective layer that shields us from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. But ground-level ozone — the chemical combustion product of factory and vehicle emissions heated by sunlight — can have a devastating effect.
Sunbelt cities like Los Angeles, Riverside, Calif., and Houston, with their seemingly endless sunny days, gridlocked urban sprawl and heat-trapping stagnant air masses, contain the highest average concentrations of ozone, according to a 2009 study by University of California, Berkeley scientists. People living in these regions, and in California’s Central Valley, have a 25 to 30 percent greater annual risk of dying from respiratory diseases like pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than do residents who enjoy cleaner air in places like San Francisco and Seattle, where fog, rain and cooler temperatures keep ozone levels in check.
In much of California, on the other hand, a witches’ brew of pollutants cooked in the atmosphere can sear the delicate tissue lining the lungs and aggravate an astonishing array of other health problems, ranging from heart disease and lung cancer to dementia. The dirty particles accelerate the thickening of arteries, which, in turn, increases the chances of heart attack and stroke and accelerates a decline in cognitive abilities because less oxygen-rich blood is being pumped to the brain.
One 2012 study that followed nearly 20,000 women nationwide revealed that exposure to this type of pollutant greatly speeds memory impairment and reduces concentration. And women who experienced higher levels of exposure to tainted air for longer periods of time had “significantly” sharper declines in mental acuity, the equivalent of an extra two years of aging.
“The same chemical reaction that makes more ozone and goes faster when temperatures are higher also produces chemical compounds that make particles, or particulate matter, in the air,” said Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California, Davis.
Big particulate matter — PM10 — is about 10 microns, similar to the thickness of a strand of hair. Typically, these particles are found in windblown or construction dust and are emitted by woodstoves, fireplaces, trash incinerators and wildfires. PM10 particles tend to make up that thick blanket of haze that envelops urban areas, and when inhaled, they stick to the insides of the lungs’ small branches that transport oxygen to the gas-exchanging tiny sacs called alveoli.
The alveoli are surrounded by thick networks of blood vessels. This is where the crucial switch is made and our bodies perform their miraculous life-sustaining alchemy: Carbon is removed from the blood to be expelled from the lungs and replaced by fresh oxygen, which is then pumped to the heart for circulation. But the pollutants cause the lungs to make mucus, trapping these particles, and creating a persistent cough.
Finer particles, at 2.5 microns (PM2.5) or less, are some 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair — and invisible to the naked eye. These tiny bits are found in the smoke and soot from brush fires, heavy metals and toxic chemical fumes. And research has consistently shown that PM2.5 particles are far more toxic and deadly than the larger particles because they can evade the respiratory system’s natural defenses.
In California, exposure to these fine air particles is associated with up to 24,000 deaths every year, according to a 2009 study by the California Air Resources Board, the majority of them in highly populated areas such as the San Francisco Bay, the San Joaquin Valley and the Los Angeles air basins. PM2.5 particles penetrate deep inside the lungs, causing constant irritation that diminishes lung capacity and can lead to cancer. Like PM10 particles, they insinuate themselves inside the walls of blood vessels, which can trigger the formation of the artery-clogging plaques that are the culprits behind strokes and heart attacks. There is evidence that even smaller particles, which are 100 nanometers, can infiltrate the brain through the nasal passages, potentially eroding cognitive abilities.
“What we’re seeing now is probably just the beginning of the effects we’ll experience from bad air,” Jose Joseph, a pulmonologist and asthma specialist at the Fresno campus of the University of California, San Francisco, told me rather ruefully one steamy October afternoon when I visited his tidy office at the university’s medical center. “In the years to come, we’re going to have major increases in all types of chronic illnesses,” he continued, ticking them off on his fingers, “in respiratory illnesses, in heart disease, in increases in heart attacks and strokes because air pollution increases blood clotting, and in its effects on developing fetuses — there is so much fallout from air pollution. In looking at the magnitude of the problem, we really have to do better than this.”
But there is some good news: Even seemingly small changes in curbing greenhouse gas emissions not only can reduce harmful pollutants and clear the air, but also help to slow climate change. In California, local grassroots groups have been successful in pushing polluters to clean up their communities and compelling government agencies to protect residents from the consequences of a warming planet.
They’re part of the environmental justice movement, a crusade that grew out of the recognition that it was mainly the poor and people of color who were forced — by circumstance, finances, lack of political power and what activists call “environmental apartheid” that callously targets the disenfranchised — to live and work in some of the nation’s dirtiest environments.
Luis Cabrales, who worked for many years as a campaign director for the Coalition for Clean Air, a venerable green group that was instrumental in the passage of California’s historic vehicle Smog Check Program in the early 1970s, has spent most of his adult life fighting for environmental justice. A slight man with a full head of dark hair, a square jaw and the broad-shouldered build of a wrestler, Cabrales possesses the easygoing charm and dogged persistence of a natural-born organizer.
There have long been strands of environmentalism in the civil rights struggle, Cabrales tells me during an interview in the coalition’s offices in a high-rise in downtown Los Angeles. Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus stemmed from a deep need for adequate public transportation, he points out, while César Chávez pushed to protect farmworkers from the harmful pesticides that were killing them in California’s Central Valley.
But it wasn’t until the late 1970s when people started connecting the dots and realized that African-Americans resisting attempts to establish garbage dumps in their neighborhoods were essentially fighting the same fight as grassroots activists protecting endangered species. “Better housing, clean water, clean air, safe schools,” said Cabrales, “these all had to do with the environment.”
In the decades since, the environmental justice movement has grown from a scrappy army of the poor and disenfranchised into a powerful coalition that united the mostly white and college-educated traditional environmentalists, trade unionists, blue-collar workers and residents of some of the nation’s most contaminated neighborhoods. It has used its growing political clout and numbers to take its place in the corridors of power.
“We’ve changed the paradigm into a green-blue coalition,” said Cabrales. “Years of environmental consciousness-raising are really bearing fruit, and environmentalists are no longer seen as weed-smoking, sandal-wearing tree huggers. Over the last 10 years, the change has been dramatic because a new generation of environmental advocates now hold positions of power in the legislature, on the ports commission and on the air resources board.”
It is a remarkable sea change that has seen someone like Fabian Núñez of East Los Angeles, one of 12 children born to a gardener and a maid from Tijuana, ascend to the speakership of the California Assembly and co-author of the nation’s most stringent measures to alleviate global warming. The landmark package of laws is considered former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature legislation and has become a model for the rest of the world.
“He was a gardener when he was a kid and pushed around a lawn mower helping his dad,” said Cabrales, with no small measure of pride. “Now he’s helped create the strongest pollution-control standards in the world — a Mexican immigrant.”
In the past decade, the Coalition for Clean Air has waged a successful campaign to begin cleaning up the deadly diesel pollution emanating from California ports. Working in tandem with such groups as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Coalition for a Safe Environment, along with the Teamsters and Longshoremen’s unions and local activists like Martha Cota, they’ve done extensive lobbying in Sacramento and community organizing to push for enforcement of the California Environmental Quality Act and compel the Port of Los Angeles to initiate a suite of pollution-reduction strategies that have cleaned up the air.
These included the Clean Truck Program, which replaced the port’s fleet of old, dirty diesel trucks with EPA-compliant vehicles equipped with particle filters, and electrifying the ports so ships can just plug in to power their infrastructure while at the dock. A single ship idling in the port — they normally sit at anchor for two to three days while they’re being unloaded — emits more pollution than five diesel school buses in an entire year.
Turning off the engines and using electrical power can cut as much as three tons of smog-inducing emissions from each ship. Still, while pollution at the Port of Los Angeles has been reduced by about 70 percent from its height, air quality remains a serious problem. “But at least we’ve made a start,” said Cabrales, and, he added, flashing a toothy smile, “we now have a seat at the table.”
[This article originally appeared in print as “Breathless” and is excerpted from FEVERED: How a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health And How We Can Save Ourselves by Linda Marsa. Copyright © 2013 by Linda Marsa. Excerpted by arrangement with Rodale Inc."]