We’ve been regulating air quality since 1970, and it’s a huge environmental success story.  The air has been getting cleaner and cleaner, according to Tracy Holloway.  She is director of the Environmental Studies Center for Sustainability and Global Environment (SAGE) at Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison, and she spoke this week at Wednesday Nite @ the Lab.

Holloway mentioned a Presidential Report to Congress that just came out.  It states that the EPA, and specifically its Office of Air, is both the most costly and the most beneficial.  The largest benefits come from the reduction in public exposure to fine particulate matter.  They estimate health savings to be from $19 to $167 billion a year which costs the nation a mere $7.3 billion per year.

 PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE: Fine Parcitulate Matter

 Particulate matter is the term for solid or liquid particles found in the air. Some particles are large or dark enough to be seen as soot or smoke, but fine particulate matter is often too small to see with the naked eye. Mobile source particulate emissions consist mainly of these very tiny particles, also known as PM2.5, because they are less than 2.5 microns in diameter.  To get an idea of how small that is – the diameter of a a human hair is much bigger: 18 to 180 microns.

Point sources include things like factories and electric power plants.

Mobile sources include cars and trucks, of course, but also lawn mowers, airplanes and anything else that moves and puts pollution into the air.

Well, if this is a success story, I would hate to see what failure looks like.  Oh yeah, it looks like ….


Ozone  is a double-edged sword.  Ground-level ozone the main ingredient in smog. Motor vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents as well as natural sources emit NOx and VOC that help form ozone. Sunlight and hot weather cause ground-level ozone to form in harmful concentrations in the air.

“Good” ozone occurs naturally in the stratosphere approximately 10 to 30 miles above the earth’s surface and forms a layer that protects life on earth from the sun’s harmful rays.  If they are too entense, UV rays from the sun leads to skin cancer, cataracts and impaired immune systems.

The good ozone is being depleted by manmade chemicals, and even though there has been a global effort to turn this around, satellite measurements show that the ozone layer is thinning – particularly over the Polar Regions.

Since 1990, the risk of developing melanoma has more than doubled.  Crops like soybeans are sensitive to UV, and too much can reduce crop yields.  The EPA says there is evidence that marine phytoplankton are under stress from increased UV radiation.  That’s a biggie because phytoplankton are the base of the ocean food chain.

Air pollution is not a local problem.  We are breathing particulate matter from Chinese coal-fire power plants, and they are breathing pollution from our agribusiness enterprises.  Holloway says it akes about 5 days for pollution to move from Asia to the West Coast and about 5 days to cross the U.S.

If you want to see what the air quality in your area is, you can check it out at this cool site AIR NOW that is updated daily. 

Holloway concluded with some suggestions that we all can do to clean up the air.

  1. Buy green energy from your power company.
  2. Make sure your car and home are efficient.
  3. Use less energy.
  4. Bar-B-Q less.  “When you see smoke, you are seeing particulate matter,” she said.

What do you think makes the most sense to cut back on in your life?

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