The Fruits of Civilization – Air


“If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.” ~ American Lung Association motto

Clean air is essential to both animals and plants. Polluting the air with particulates or chemicals adversely affects all life.

Beyond carbon-based greenhouse gases are 2 noteworthy polluting byproducts of fossil fuel combustion: nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

Nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are the nitrogen oxides. Though they last only days in the atmosphere, nitrogen oxides contribute to the formation of smog and acid rain.

Sulfur dioxide is produced chiefly by power plants and factories burning high-sulfur coal and fuel oils. SO2 is highly toxic and corrosive. Sulfur dioxide combines with nitric oxide to produce the secondary pollutants of acid rain: sulfuric acid, nitrate, and sulfur salts.

◊ ◊ ◊

“Air pollution is the 4th-highest risk factor for death globally, and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease.” ~ Canadian environmental scientist Michael Brauer

Air pollution irritates all the tissues that it touches. Stress to the respiratory system is the most noticeable. But air pollution deteriorates health holistically, also damaging the nervous, immune, and reproductive systems. The toxic nanoparticles in air pollution make their way into the brain, where they wreak damage, causing mental illness and accelerating Alzheimer’s and dementia. Air pollution stupefies people.

The entire body is degraded by dirty air. As with other pollutants, the young and elderly are most severely impacted. Child intelligence plummets from air pollution.

Air pollution has ethical costs. Cities with more air pollution have higher crime levels.

“Air pollution increases criminal and unethical behavior by increasing anxiety. Analyses of US cities found that air pollution predicted 6 major categories of crime.” ~ American social psychologist Adam Galinsky et al

People are not the only ones to notice foul air. Birds fly around noxious air pockets if they can. If not, they fly faster through polluted skies, so as get out of the muck as quickly as possible.

Coal-fueled power generation is the single-largest source of air pollution. China burns half of the world’s coal, having overtaken the US as the greatest generator of greenhouse gases in 2007, and the biggest energy consumer in 2010.

Men lack the technology to burn coal without emitting significant pollution. Attempts to do so have failed.

The economic boom in China and other Asian countries that got into full swing in the mid-1990s brought with it an upsurge in air pollution which has intensified cyclones in the northwest Pacific. Particulate pollution changed how moisture develops in clouds and how heat is distributed in storm systems. As a result, the cyclones that sweep across China, Korea, and Japan during the winter pack stronger winds and more rain.

92% of the world’s population breathes unsafe air. Nearly 15% of children worldwide, some 300 million, breathe highly toxic air. 73% of them live in south Asia.

“Children are uniquely vulnerable because their lungs are still developing. Early exposure to toxic air has lifelong consequences for them.” ~ English political economist Nicholas Rees

“Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs. They can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains, and, thus, their futures.” ~ English diplomat Anthony Lake

“Early-life exposure to pollution can have lasting impacts on cognitive abilities.” ~ American public health maven Matthew Neidell

Cities are huge polluters. 70% of the world’s carbon emissions emanate from there. Over 80% of the people living in urban areas worldwide breath dirty air. Populations in low-income cities are the worst off.

“Race is a potent predictor of exposure to air pollution.” ~ American environmentalist and sociologist Robert Bullard

In 2012, 6.5 million people died from air pollution: 11.6% of all fatalities worldwide. Half of those deaths were in China and India. The toll continues to rise.

Beijing’s air is barely breathable, but it is nowhere near the most polluted city on the planet. London in midwinter is worse, thanks to stagnant air and diesel vehicles. And then there is India.


Air pollution is so bad in India that it has cut crop yields by almost half: the plants there can’t stand to breathe the air.

The Indian city with the chokiest air is the capital, New Delhi; but several other cities are similarly afflicted with toxic air.

To get ready for the next planting, Indian farmers burn the leftover straw in their grain fields. The grain-growing region of India is Punjab, just north of the capital city. The extensive crop burning accounts for 25% of the air pollution in New Delhi during the winter.

The government promotes a seeder that obviates the need to burn the fields, but farmers cannot afford it. The burning of crops has been illegal for many years, but, like many laws in India, it is widely ignored.

Indian officials don’t have a clue how bad their air is because they don’t bother to accurately measure it. Anyway, government officials fiercely deny the foulness of their air.

“Our levels are comparable with those of other cities.” ~ Indian government air quality specialist Gufran Beig


Cities in neighboring south Asia countries also have terrible air. The urban air in Pakistan, including Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, is horrendous. Narayanganj, one of the oldest cities in Bangladesh, sports a nasty smog. Breathing in the Iranian city of Khormabad, or Iğdır, on the eastern edge of Turkey, is also ill-advised.

“Urban air pollution continues to rise at an alarming rate, wreaking havoc on human health.” ~ Spanish physician Maria Neira

Over half of the US population lives amid dangerous air pollution. 6 of the 10 worst US cities are in California, with Bakersfield topping the list.

Air quality in urban Britain is poor, London particularly, where over 8% of deaths are attributable to air pollution. 60,000 people die in the UK from air pollution annually.

Machines are the largest source of man-made malodorous air, but not solely so. Lifestyle choices themselves pollute the atmosphere: raising livestock produces methane and other greenhouse gases which are decidedly unhealthy.


“Dust is the ultimate feedback loop.” ~ American meteorologist Joseph Prospero

Dust storms arise when hot air over the desert destabilizes the lower atmosphere, whipping up strong winds which send massive amounts of dust, sand, and soil across oceans and continents. 2 billion tonnes of dust move around the globe every year, borne as atmospheric tides. Riding in these clouds are all sorts of microbes and aerosol pollutants.

More than half of the world’s dust flows from African deserts and dry lands. Much of it is carried on westward trade winds across the Atlantic to the Americas. The Middle East and Europe get a goodly share of African dust as well.

Dust from Africa has skyrocketed since the mid-1800s, when commercial agriculture took root in the Sahel region, south of the Sahara desert and north of the Sudanian savanna. Inept plowing practices has hundreds of millions of tonnes of valuable topsoil blow away. Other regions of Africa have contributed their dirt to the wind as economic development got underway.

A terrestrial fungus and infectious bacteria have devastated Caribbean sea fan coral in the past few decades. The pathogens were delivered to the Caribbean Sea from the plains of Africa.

The fungus responsible for sugarcane rust explosively spread across Caribbean fields in the late 1970s and early 1980s, decimating the sugar industry. The rust came on dust from Cameroon, in west Africa.

British livestock suffered dozens of outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease between the 1950s and 1980s. The viruses doing the damage dropped from the sky, delivered from Africa.

Seasonal asthma attacks in Barbados, off the coast of South America, correspond with the arrival of African dust clouds.


Dust from China lands in Hawaii and western North America. Greenland is also landfall for Asian dust.

Nearly 20% of China is desert. For decades, China’s deserts have been spreading every year by ~340,000 hectares: mostly in northern China, where drought is worsening. In 2017, China had 5.5 million hectares more desert than it did in 1975.

Thanks to rapid urbanization, deforestation, and climate change, northern China is blanketed in dust storms annually. A half century ago, such storms happened every 7–8 years.

China’s dust storms typically occur during the spring, as strong winds send sand from the Gobi Desert over northern China and into the Korean peninsula. Dust storms typically hit after the region has been afflicted by high wintertime smog, which is precipitated by pollutants from power plants, factors, and vehicles.

In early May 2017, a dust storm over Beijing sent the city’s air quality index to over 620. The US government rates readings over 200 “very unhealthy,” and 301–500 “hazardous.”


Saharan dust creates algae blooms in the Caribbean and subtropical Atlantic. Chinese dust does the same on the west coast of America: creating toxic blooms from southern California to as far north as Alaska.

Canadian lentil fields were hard hit in 1987 by anthracnose, a fungal spotting and wilting disease. This fungal blight was brought on the wind from Asia.

 Dusted Oceans

Pollution can invoke dramatic environmental dynamics. Partly through dust, Chinese pollution has raised the levels of iron and nitrogen in the ocean off the coast of east Asia. These are key nutrients for marine life.

Ocean currents carry the artificial enrichment to tropical waters, where the minerals are consumed by phytoplankton.

While the phytoplankton may have oxygenated the atmosphere with their exhaust, their dietary indulgence has a negative effect on dissolved oxygen in the deep. When plankton expire, their organic matter sinks. Bacteria below consume the remains, using oxygen in the water to do so. This lowers the oxygen level in the ocean, leading to hypoxic events that alter marine habitats.

“Air pollution can circulate across the ocean and affect ecosystems thousands of kilometers away. Dust can have a huge impact on the health of the oceans.” ~ Greek American ecologist Athanasios Nenes

 The Dust Bowl

From the early 1870s, white families settled into prairie states which had been “set aside for the perpetual home for the red man.” As with the rest of the country, indigenous peoples were forcibly evicted from their lands.

Many of the white migrants came from the hill country of the rural South: a restless, violent folk inured to a hardscrabble existence. They left behind them soil depleted by the dreadful farming practices which they brought with them.

These tenants and sharecroppers quickly overworked the Great Plains as they had the soils they had tilled before. Topsoil washed away, and with it all prospects for a decent life.

This was self-destruction through ignorance. Native sod that was an indispensable buffer against wind and drought was plowed in long straight furrows, often parallel with the wind. Large fields were left bare. Diverse vegetation was supplanted by a single cash crop which could not hold the soil.

The western plains were blessed with plentiful rain and moderate winters in the 1920s. Then the weather turned for the worse. The summer of 1930 was unusually dry. Succeeding years turned dryness into drought.

The wind whistles on the western plains at 15 miles per hour on an average afternoon. In the spring of 1934, the whistle became a relentless howl. Thus birthed what became known as the Dirty Thirties.

Tens of tonnes of dirt were dumped in Chicago and on the eastern seaboard. Soil sifted into the White House and settled onto ships at sea.

This was not the first dust storm of significance on the Great Plains. Serious storms had raged in 1886, 1894, 1913, 1932, and 1933. The difference was only of scale and sustained intensity. The weather reaped a disaster which farmers had sown.

On 14 April 1935 – Black Sunday – winds raged across the Great Plains from Texas to Canada, turning day into night. By that time, the United States, which had been the world’s breadbasket, had to import wheat from elsewhere.

The scraping of the western plains continued to 1941, when the winds relented, and record rains came.

Loose dirt was not the only export during the Dust Bowl. Out of the plains and hills of once-peaceful native lands came the Okies: a people who had quickly transformed a rich land into what Carey McWilliams called “a sumphole of poverty.”

Writers at the time portrayed a natural disaster that gave landlords and banks the chance to put people off their valuable land. It was nothing of the sort. Farmers themselves brought about their own calamitous fate.

 Aral Sea

The Aral Sea in central Asia formed 5.5 million years ago. It is surrounded by 4 deserts.

The Aral Sea was once the 4th-largest lake in the world; unusual in that 2 rivers flowed into it, but none flowed out. A high evaporation rate meant that Aral Sea just managed to retain its size.

In the early 1960s, Soviet planners authorized huge diversions from the rivers feeding the lake to irrigate farms. The land around the Aral Sea became heavily laden with pesticides, and highly vulnerable to erosion from plowing.

What was once the Aral Sea is now a few toxic ponds and a desert the size of West Virginia. The lethal little lakes will be gone by 2025.

The wind blows the polluted dust of the erstwhile Aral Sea for hundreds of kilometers to the south. Those living nearby have fewer diseases from the airborne toxins than those living 400 km away.

 Owens Lake

“There it is, take it.” ~ Los Angeles water department commissioner William Mulholland in 1913, referring to depleting Owen Lake for the city’s water supply

America has its own Aral Sea in Owens Lake. Once the size of the Sea of Galilee, Owens Lake once gleamed in sunny California, midway between Sequoia National Park and Death Valley.

At the turn of the 20th century, state bureaucrats decided that the river feeding the lake was better put to slaking the thirst of burgeoning Los Angeles. Within a decade the lake dried up. That uncovered 28,500 hectares of briny silt heavily laced with arsenic, which gold miners had used a half century earlier in their operations upstream.

Today, Owens lake is the single biggest dust source in the United States. During a storm, fine carcinogenic dust howls into the distance, aiming some of its toxic revenge on Los Angeles, the city that sucked it dry.

“It’s a desert climate, but LA made it the dust bowl that it is today.” ~ American environmental scientist Mel Joseph on Owens Lake

Buildings & Birds

If you’re a bird, the skies are no longer safe just because of stinky air. Buildings, especially glass skyscrapers, simply are not recognized as hazards by many birds. The features that create a killer tower include glass reflectivity, sunlight orientation, night lighting, and whether the building has irregular shapes. Each one can engender bird strikes.

Over 1 billion birds a year fly to their doom by smashing into North American buildings; perhaps 2 billion worldwide. Toronto, which is right in the flight path of migratory birds, is the deadliest city for avian fliers: up to 9 million birds die each year from colliding into Toronto towers. New York City only manages to kill 2 million birds a year.

The victims are largely songbirds. Their swan song is swift, though many suffer concussions before crunching into the street. A tiny percentage survive, though few ever recover.