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Air pollution’s invisible toll on our cities

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Journalist Beth Gardiner’s new book, Choked, offers frontline reporting from a global environmental crisis

The polluted Shanghai skyline.
The polluted Shanghai skyline.

Clear skies don’t necessarily reflect clean air. It’s a key distinction that muddies understanding of air pollution. While air quality in U.S. cities has, through environmental laws and regulations such as the landmark Clean Air Act, become significantly better since the early ’70s, advances in our scientific understanding of the widespread health damage from air pollution suggests much more dramatic action is needed. Roughly 100,000 Americans die each year due to the health impacts of air pollution, more than the number who die from car crashes and gun violence combined.

In her new book Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution, London-based American journalist Beth Gardiner explains in intricate detail how our increasingly comprehensive understanding of air pollution’s impact reinforces its distinction as one of today’s defining health threats. An insidious and invisible killer, it’s being aided and abetted by a fossil fuel-powered world, car-focused transportation system, and a fuzzy understanding of its ramifications.

“People used to have a greater understanding of the furiousness of the air pollution problem back in the ’70s and ’80s when you could literally see it,” she told Curbed. “The air was filthy, whether it was D.C., New York, Los Angeles, or Pittsburgh. In many ways, we’re a victim of our own success.”

Gardiner’s extensive travel and research has taken her from the labs in California where early air quality tests helped broaden our understanding of pollution’s impact, to cities across the globe, including Delhi, Berlin, and her adopted hometown of London, where a stew of diesel fuels inspired her work. In the process, Gardiner has brought to light both the damage and inequality caused by pollution—it impacts everything from mental health and life expectancy to IQ formation in children, not just breathing and lung functions—and how science continues to develop a better statistical understanding of the issue. While some air quality measurements may be getting better, the rate at which researchers learn about the long-lasting impacts of particulates in the air and increased carbon emissions is actually reversing progress.

Here are some of the key lessons from Gardiner’s book, and insights on how cities can work to improve air quality.

An aerial view of the cityscape of Los Angeles. There is a heavy layer of smog hanging over the buildings.
Summer smog in downtown Los Angeles.

California is both a lesson, and a cautionary tale, about air pollution

The Golden State earns plaudits for its commitment to cleaner air, which has rippled across the nation due to California’s economic clout. The California Air Resources Board (CARB), the state’s clean air agency, helped unmask the cheating at the heart of the Dieselgate scandal, and has pushed aggressive auto emissions standards that have helped reduce smog, and improve standards across the country. Which is why the Trump administration is trying to curtail CARB’s power as part of a larger rollback of environmental regulation.

“The air quality in California is so much better than it was 20 years ago,” says Gardiner. “It’s often described as one of the world’s great environmental success stories, and rightfully so.”

But, despite these gains, California still has the nation’s worst air quality. That’s due in large part to the state’s reliance on cars. Even though automobiles are so much cleaner than they were decades ago, there are so many more of them now. California may be a model, but it’s also an object lesson in the importance of transportation in a larger pollution-reduction strategy.

“You’re simply never going to get to clean air with that number of vehicles,” Gardiner says.

Air pollution is much worse than people think—and that’s a problem

There’s a reason Gardiner’s book is subtitled “Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution.” Every year, more than seven million people across the globe die prematurely from air pollution, and more than 40 percent of Americans breathe polluted air every day. As researchers learn more about pollution’s impact on human health, it’s clear that science is only beginning to understand how widespread the damage actually is.

There’s a disparity in what most people understand about the impacts of dirty air, a hazy understanding encouraged by all manner of bad actors whose business model might be damaged by a clear recognition of the crisis. Gardiner calls it a “weaponization of uncertainty.” People understand climate change is an existential threat, but aren’t as clear about air pollution’s true impact.

“The health benefits are spread through hundreds of million of people who don’t know they’ve reaped the benefits,” Gardiner says. “They’re really invisible. Whereas the costs are way more visible, they fall on the car plants or coal plants. They understand the cost of cleaning up, and are politically powerful and ready to mobilize against regulation. When a new regulation is discussed, we talk about the price tag, because those who need to pay know, and don’t want to pay it. Whereas, I’ll never know that I didn’t have a heart attack today because of a regulation that passed a few years ago.”

How cities can make a difference

Impacting air pollution locally can be tricky. Most environmental policy happens at the federal level, making it difficult to alter energy policy or enact new pollution restrictions. Decades of car-based urban and transportation planning plays a key role in stifling easy solutions, with sprawl and a lack of investment in transportation—not easy to quickly reverse—leading to more vehicles on the road and more vehicle miles traveled.

But the undeniable connection to fossil fuels, and our transportation choices, both at an individual and city level, can become one of the most important ways to enact change. They’re certainly knotty issues, as Gardiner says. But this is where the increasing understanding of pollution’s impact can be a powerful weapon in policy debates. Investing in mass transit and more sustainable ways to get around will have a long-term impact on climate change. But they’ll immediately impact the health of everyone nearby.

“A lot of us understand that fossil fuels are wrecking the planet and endangering our future,” Gardiner says. “But a lot of us don’t realize they’re making us sick right now. The more positive way to put it is, if we move away from fossil fuels, we’ll do what we need to do to address the climate crisis in the future, and we’ll be saving lives tomorrow.”