Fossil Fuel Use and Health Issues 3 – Visualizing the Pollution and how it affects our health – Part 2

In the previous post we outlined some of the health problems associated with fossil fuel pollution.  In this post we delve deeper into the actual problems, not to scare you, but to make you aware that this is not something that happens somewhere else.  This is everyone’s problem and is happening where you live, here and now! 

Ground-level Ozone forms when volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mainly from gasoline and diesel combustion, react with the sun’s ultraviolet rays.  It reaches its worst levels in the afternoon and early evening after the sun has been out for several hours.  As such is most noticeable during the summer months but is still prevalent even on a cold winter’s day.  It is a strong irritant to air passages in the throat and lungs causing them to constrict causing difficulty in breathing.   More notable health problems include: aggravated respiratory disease such as emphysema, bronchitis and asthma; wheezing, chest pain, dry throat, headache or nausea; persistent sore throat and coughs that indicate lung damage; compromised immune system; and feeling weak and fatigued with little motivation to get up and go.  The only solutions, besides not creating ground level ozone in the first place, is to stay indoors with a whole house filtration system, move to a remote area well away from major transportation areas, or to walk around outside with a specific ozone filtering respiration mask.     

Particulate Matter (PM) and Wildfire Smoke is a complex mixture of soot and smoke from fires and power stations, metal particles, nitrates, sulfates (from all fossil fuel combustion), and tire rubber particulates, some of which react with sunlight (i.e. oxides of nitrogen – NOx).  What makes the particulates dangerous is the specific size of the particles.  The smaller the particles, the more dangerous they tend to be.  Larger particles can be irritants but are less likely to have long lasting health effects, while fine particulate particles can cause life long and even fatal problems, especially to the lungs and heart.  We hear a lot about ‘fracking’ and the many chemicals (over 650 proprietary chemicals) used during the fracking process, but almost unknown is the grave danger that an come from being downwind of a ‘blowout’ where the exceptionally fine sand (less than 10 micron) used in bulk in fracking, if inhaled, used can cause fatal silicosis.  

Long-term exposure to particulate pollution can result in significant health problems including: respiratory problems from irritation of the airways that causes persistent coughing, difficulty in breathing, and decreased lung function; development of asthma or further aggravation of existing asthma with further development of chronic  respiratory disease in children and adults with already impaired respiration; increases in chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive lung disease; onset of heart problems such as irregular heartbeat and nonfatal heart attacks leading to increased levels of death in people with heart or lung disease, including death from lung cancer. 

Just like Ozone, the only solutions, besides not creating these PMs  in the first place, is to stay indoors with a whole house filtration system, move to a remote area well away from major transportation areas, or to walk around outside with a specific respiration mask for fine particulates.  Wild fires are on the increase, so being aware of what is happening in your area and knowledge of the wind patterns affecting your area will help to minimize being outdoors when these conditions are severe.  Letting your neighbors know if you have problems and having a medical emergency plan should symptoms become severe is a given.  Most at risk for chronic problems are young children and seniors, although acute symptoms can occur for anyone (e.g. fracking blowout).   Keep an adequate supply of your medications (five days or more) on hand should you suffer from any respiratory ailment.  Listen to local news, weather forecasts and air quality alerts provided by the local air district specialists.  While we gave specifics above for susceptible people, be aware that even healthy and especially active outdoors people can expect to experience temporary symptoms, such as: irritation of the eyes, nose and throat (dry raspy throat); Coughing as if trying to clear the throat; tightness in the chest; and shortness of breath especially during the latter parts of the day.

PMs, Ozone, and VOCs are always present because of the burning of fossil fuels.  Here in the front range they are readily visible when one comes back down from the mountains back to the front range towns.  The brown smog can be seen as a layer that hangs over the towns and cities.  Many athletes comment that they can exercise and run easier uphill at 10,000 ft than they can at 5000 ft in the front range.  The difference is merely the air quality.  Coal fired power plants, fracking, and millions of vehicles burning diesel and gasoline make for poor air quality on the front range.  This can worsen when easterly wind patterns push the polluted air up against the mountains thereby concentrating the pollution and exacerbating health issues.  Clean air is a basic right that we ALL share.  While we make many excuses for burning fossil fuels as an inevitable consequence for our modern way of living, that mindset is completely flawed!  There are alternatives that we all can support that give us the convenience of heat, light and transportation options, that give us clean air to live healthily.  Next blog posts will be about these alternatives we can all support.  After all, what is good about pollution?