Air Pollution Kills. Why Are We So Bad at Recognizing That?
From the East Palestine derailment to the gas stove backlash, our society struggles to see pollution as a real and urgent threat.
This week marks the tenth anniversary of the death of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah. Three years ago, a coroner’s report made Ella the first person in the United Kingdom to have air pollution listed as her cause of death. Nitrogen dioxide levels in Ella’s neighborhood in southeast London, coroner Philip Barlow concluded, exceeded legal limits, while the levels of particulate matter exceeded World Health Organization guidelines. Citing the strong, well-established scientific link between such pollution and asthma risks, Barlow announced that “Ella died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution.”
This historic report only happened because Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, devoted years to a legal fight to have her daughter’s death reviewed by a second coroner. In the two years leading up to Ella’s death, she was admitted to the hospital almost 30 times, The Guardian reported in 2020, with her lungs collapsing or partially collapsing five times. And these attacks spiked not during pollen season but “in winter when air pollution levels spiked.”
Humanity is exceptionally bad at recognizing and properly weighing these kinds of risks. Hurricanes, shootings—these things too are normalized more than they should be, but they make front-page headlines, and human society seems capable of processing them. We can understand that a specific event causes a specific death.
We have a much harder time properly appreciating the toll of something like pollution, which isn’t an event so much as a backdrop. “By all rights, it ought to be treated as a severe weather event like a storm or fire,” TNR columnist Liza Featherstone wrote in September 2021. “Air pollution puts us in physical danger, leaving us more vulnerable to lung diseases, heart attacks, and even Covid-19. Even in the United States, which enjoys cleaner air than much of the world, air pollution killed an estimated 230,000 people in 2018.”
But poor air quality—frankly, any kind of environmental contamination—is mostly not treated like a crisis: Its contours are hard to perceive, the cause and effect not as concrete as a fire destroying a home or a flood sweeping away a car.
We’ve seen that in the swift backlash to regulation of gas stoves, which leak both nitrogen dioxide and carcinogenic benzene. “I think that people may have a real problem trying to accept the idea that small concentrations of leaking natural gas, particularly benzene, might cause health problems,” veteran tobacco litigator John Banzhaf told me last fall, “the same way that people had real difficulty believing that amounts of drifting tobacco smoke could cause health problems.” And that’s despite researchers consistently showing the link between gas stoves and respiratory illness since the late 1970s.
We’re seeing it now in the sluggish national response to the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3. The accident spilled toxic chemical cargo into the surrounding area, which was then subjected to a “controlled burn” to avoid the risk of an explosion. Only this Tuesday were residents belatedly told it might be safer to drink bottled water until testing is complete. About 4.5 million tons of toxic chemicals are transported by rail each year, by the way, and rail safety regulations are pretty lax.
Anyone with eyesight in East Palestine could see, from the plume of toxic smoke that rose from the accident site for days, that the air was unsafe to breathe. But what about invisibly foul air? Google Maps, Liza Featherstone writes this week, has begun featuring air quality scores in its app. That’s useful for planning your travels, perhaps, but cold comfort for people who “have no choice but to live in the most toxic parts of town.”
The obvious solution is not to allow air to be polluted at these levels at all! But industry opposes any broad attempts to limit air pollution, as we’re seeing with the energy companies gearing up to fight a new Environmental Protection Agency smog and soot plan. In the U.K., meanwhile, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah is still fighting for what’s become known as “Ella’s law,” a clean air bill to enforce better pollution standards starting in 2030, rather than 2040 as previously planned. Those 10 years, Kissi-Debrah has pointed out, can be measured in an estimated 300,000 lives.
The Senate will continue House Democrats’ work last term of investigating fossil fuel industry–funded disinformation—which many feared would falter once Republicans took the House. The big question is whether the documents collected by the House Oversight Committee can be transferred to the Senate Budget Committee, where Sheldon Whitehouse intends to revive the investigation.
Alaska Senators Murkowski and Sullivan are preemptively pitching a fit over the prospect of the Interior Department making ConocoPhillips’s $8 billion Willow drilling project in Alaska follow certain guidelines to limit environmental devastation. “They damn well better not kill the project,” Murkowski told reporters this week, arguing restrictions would make the project unprofitable—thus killing it.
Stat of the Week
That’s how much of the earth’s wetlands a new study estimates has been lost since 1700.
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem
Wait, Exxon’s Not Going to Be an Algae Company?
Exxon has finally, formally, scrapped its weird project that was allegedly going to use algae to produce energy. Environmentalists have been denouncing the project as classic greenwashing since its inception in 2009. Bill McKibben reviews the whole bonkers narrative in his newsletter. “All of this should teach us some lessons about credulity,” he writes:
[Exxon] invested some millions in algae research—and invested huge sums of money in boasting about it. For much of this period, a viewer encountering the company for the first time would have concluded that Exxon was an algae company who happened to have a few oil wells on the side. The company spent at least $50 million on tv time bragging about algae, and as I wrote in 2020 in the New Yorker, it hired a bunch of high-powered “creatives” to, among other things, develop truly lovely web videos showing teeny tiny algae-powered devices. In one installment, algae-fuel is used to propel a tiny boat around a bowl. This algae, a sprightly narrator notes, could power “entire fleets of ships tomorrow.” In fact, the ad contends, algae could fuel “the trucks, ships and planes of tomorrow.” It concludes, “This is big.”
But it was not big. “Algae” was never going to be a solution to the emissions crisis—as people have been noting for many years, you’d need oil trading at $500 a barrel to make it cost effective. A trial at Swansea University, in Wales, showed that, if you wanted to supply, say, ten per cent of Europe’s transport-fuel needs with algae, you’d need growing ponds three times the size of Belgium.
Read Bill McKibben’s newsletter at The Crucial Years.
This article first appeared in Apocalypse Soon, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.