What is the story?

Air. This is a simple story, right?
It is simple in that we absolutely must have it, yet complex due to the gas mixture that we require to breathe. All mammals, including ourselves, breathe in a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. Why do we need this mix?

  • Oxygen: We breathe in a small amount of oxygen into our lungs, where it passes into our bloodstreams. Oxygen is the key to almost all of our life-supporting biochemistry.
  • Carbon dioxide: We need this to stimulate breathing. Without it, we could not live.
  • Nitrogen: Although we breathe it, we do not need it for biochemical processes. But, we do need it because the nitrogen content in air maintains the correct percentage of oxygen (about 21%) required for normal oxygen absorption.

The right air mixture is essential for our lives. If the proportions change or other substances are added to what we breathe, adverse reactions can occur in our bodies.

Where are we now?

Unfortunately, we and our global neighbors have gradually added a lot of unusual substances to the air that we breathe.

Most of these substances come from the output of these sources:

  • Industry, particularly heavy engineering

  • Coal-burning power stations
  • Tailpipes of cars, trucks, trains, ships, and planes

The output from these become pollutants in the air that we breathe.

The air in our neighborhood holds pollutants from our local highways and in some areas from industrial plants.
Contaminated air crosses state, national and far international boundaries. Amazingly, pollutants in our air can originate from across the world (dust from China falling on the U.S. West Coast). The opposite is true, too. Pollutants that we create can affect people in far-away regions like Tibet and India.

We are tightly bound together in a world that shares its best and worst with each other.

Did you know?

Did you know that North Carolina’s air is affected by air from the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys and even China?

How does this affect me?

Currently, in North Carolina 15 counties (out of 100) have too much in the way of dust particles in the air and 22 have higher ozone levels than are considered healthy. This mainly occurs in the summer months. New North Carolina laws are aimed at eliminating this problem by 2020.

Think of the implications on lands, health, and economic development.

Air pollutants affect:

  • Our land and lakes
  • Our bodies
  • Tourism and economic development (recruitment of new businesses)

Air pollutants affect our land and lakes

Have you heard the term “acid rain”? Wind-carried contaminants generate dense, particle-filled air called smog. Falling rain washes the smog down to the ground resulting in acid rain (mainly sulfur dioxide dissolving in water and turning into dilute acid).

This increases soil acidity, which, in turn, impacts the growth of our forests and plants. Acid rain weakens North Carolina’s high level woodlands, especially the conifers, making them more susceptible to insect and fungal attack. These woodlands are an important component in North Carolina’s economy.

The rising acidity flows down into our lakes and creeks, damaging fish, aquatic plants, and invertebrates (bugs).

Air pollutants affect our bodies

Pollutants in our air can create many reactions in our own bodies, including:

  • Acute breathing problems
  • Reactions in our liver and nervous system
Acute breathing problems

Acute breathing problems from polluted air arise most often in the very young and old. As air pollutants accumulate in our lungs, we develop more chronic respiratory problems.

Output from our cars, trains, trucks, ships, and planes generate the following air irritants:  

  • Ozone

  • Nitrous oxides

  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Small particles ranging from metals to hydrocarbon by-products

You hear in the daily news about the effects of ozone in our air. During the summer the news tells us about the orange ozone air quality level, which warns that adults and young children with respiratory problems should avoid going outside (according to the EPA’s air quality index).

Environmental researchers and health professionals estimate that 7% of the N.C. population already has some form of acute or chronic lung disease. Respiratory disease results in the following:

  • Increased days off work
  • Reduced goods and service production
  • Increased health and social costs

These people (mostly asthmatics) are severely affected by air pollution and it may be a primary cause of the asthma in many cases.

We could be looking at an increase in North Carolina’s already strained health costs by as much $1 billion a year from air pollution related respiratory illnesses.

Reactions in our liver and nervous system

Traces of toxic substances, such as mercury, now found in our air, accumulate in our liver and nervous system. Over long periods, these accumulations could generate serious health issues.

Air pollutants affect tourism and our economy

When we think of smog, we certainly think of the air we breathe. But, it does more damage than that. Smog decreases visibility and the attractiveness of our community. It discourages tourism. Acid rain damages forests and freshwater plants and animals.

Polluted air reduces federal and corporate support to locate businesses in that area.

What can I do?

  1. Consider car pooling to work.

  2. In hot weather especially, consider whether a car trip is really necessary. Combine trips to do errands.

  3. Fill up your car with gas at the beginning or end of the day, not during the hottest time of day when evaporation and vapor release is highest.


What is the story?

Suppose for a few minutes that you and your neighbors do not have cars. Fire departments, police, and schools still have transportation, but you don’t. You must travel by bus or train.

What would the impact be? On energy use? On community services?

We’d use less fuel for one thing. Less demand would reduce the need for oil drilling or imports and bring fuel prices down. Air quality would improve. Respiratory illnesses might decrease. (See the Air section.)

Obviously, this isn’t realistic. We are very attached to the convenience of our cars. Only a few areas, in and around cities, have efficient and well used public transportation systems. North Carolina is not one of them.

Did you know?

Did you know that running the engines in our cars can affect the climate? Increased production of ozone and carbon dioxide (from burning oil in engines) is contributing to an increase in the earth’s surface temperature. Researchers believe that increasing earth’s temperature will change weather patterns, especially over oceans.

Where are they now?

The U.S. automobile industry caters to our requirements. Compared to other countries, petroleum for U.S. cars has been relatively cheap, costing only about a third of that in Europe.

Most privately owned vehicles around the world operate with 1.0 to 1.5 liter engines, which is more than adequate for most people’s needs. However, U.S. drivers often travel in SUVs and minivans sporting 3 to 5 liter engines.

All three of our big metropolitan areas (Raleigh/Durham, The Triad, and Charlotte/Mecklenberg) have debated the value of having comprehensive transit systems but have so far not been able to get sufficient support for them.

Did you know?

Did you know fossil fuels include coal, oil, and natural gas?

How does this affect me?

Energy from fossil fuels depletes our natural resources and affects our climate.

Depleting our natural resources

One out of 200 countries consumes approximately 25% of all energy used on Earth: the United States. Although the U.S. population is only 5% of the world’s population, we consume 25% of all energy used on earth. 

When other countries, particularly China and India, begin to compete with us for these same energy sources, the quantity of fossil fuels being burnt and the associated costs per gallon will rise dramatically.

You thought gas prices in the U.S. were pretty high, right? Most economists predict that gas prices will rise sharply over the next 10 years to match prices elsewhere in the world. They expect by the next decade that we will pay at least $5 for a gallon of gas.

At that point, we will see many more energy-saving initiatives:

  • More fuel efficient vehicles

  • Improved energy emissions standards

  • Better insulated houses and commercial buildings

  • More commercial energy-saving devices in place

The U.S. will have to cut its current dependency on fossil fuels by 50% to reduce the problems that will accumulate, both in economic terms and in air quality at home. Alternative sources of energy to fossil fuels are being developed, including fuel from plants (biofuels), wind and solar generators, and hydrogen-powered engines.  

Changing Climates

Burning fossil fuels produces ozone and carbon dioxide, gradually increasing the earth’s temperature. Increasing temperatures could melt the polar ice caps. This will raise the sea water levels and foster more severe tropical storms. Isn’t it amazing how so many parts of our ecological system are connected?

A sixth of the world’s population, those who live in coastal communities, will be affected by rising sea levels. They could lose their property, their livelihood, and in many places the ability to provide their own food. North Carolina coastal towns are especially vulnerable to tropical storm and sea level changes.

What can I do?

  1. Change 5 light bulbs. Per the EPA, if every U.S. household replaced 5 conventional light bulbs with bulbs that have the ENERGY STAR label, we would prevent more than 1 trillion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year. That could replace many of our old coal fired power stations.
  2. Clean or replace your air and heat filters and have your  cooling and heating equipment checked for efficiency regularly.
  3. Perform an audit of your home’s energy use. Ask your local energy provider to conduct a free audit.
  4. Change the temperature that you think you need to maintain in your house. You’d be surprised at how much energy you save just by changing a couple of degrees.
  5. Consider energy-efficient washers, dryers, dishwashers, refrigerators and other electrical devices the next time you replace them.
  6. Replace the older insulation or add more insulation to your home. Compare the cost of new insulation installation with the savings in energy over 10 years. Your local power company can help you develop those figures. Consider double or even triple glazing.
  7. The next time that you change your car, consider the engine capacity. North Carolinian’s spend at least $9 billion every year on imported oil. It would not be difficult to save $2 – $3 billion per year by driving cars with 20% more fuel efficiency. The savings could be spent in-state on other things (creating more wealth and jobs).
  8. If you live in a coastal community, ask questions of your local leadership about the wisdom of some types of beach development. Will it survive beach erosion, heavier storms, rising sea levels? How well prepared is the community for such changes? Who will pay for property damage in storm vulnerable sites?