air-pollution-denver-traffic One of the most important benefits of driving a solar-charged electric car is the ways in which this reduces local, regional and global air pollution and thereby improves environmental health. SolarChargedDriving.Com writer Jenna Johnson examines some of the environmental dimensions of air pollution in this article.

Despite significant progress nearly 58 percent of Americans regularly inhale dangerously polluted air and the U.S. transportation sector continues to be the primary offender.

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), ozone and particle pollution are the most widespread and dangerous forms of air pollution, though there are other air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

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Ozone pollution
Ozone is the basic ingredient of smog pollution, which is extremely harmful to breathe. Most ozone pollution is caused by motor vehicles.

Nitrogen oxides (NO) and hydrocarbons chemically react in heat and sunlight to form ozone and are primarily produced when fossil fuels such as gasoline, oil, or coal are burned.

Particle pollution
There is increasing evidence that inhaling particle pollution, such as exhaust smoke, can kill by increasing the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, and asthma attacks.

The California Air Resources Board has recently tripled the estimate of premature deaths caused from particle pollution to 18,000 annually.

Particle pollution comes from mechanical processes like construction, mining, and agriculture, and chemical processes like burning fuels and emitting gases, which either condense into the particle of the same chemical compound, or react with other chemicals in the atmosphere like carbon, SO2, and nitrogen oxides.

Particles created by chemical processes are finer and more dangerous because they can pass through the lungs and enter the blood stream.

The State of the Air report indicated that the strongest improvement was in year-round particle pollution levels, especially in the eastern U.S, and proves that legislation to clean up major sources of air pollution has helped, but that much more needs to be done, especially in regards to coal-fired power plants and diesel engines.

An air pollution case study: Colorado
The most polluted regions of the U.S. are the east and west coasts because they are more populated and urbanized.

air-pollution-truckA majority of the most polluted cities are in California, according to the ALA. Los Angeles, California, for example, ranked first for ozone pollution, third for year round particle pollution, and fourth for short-term particle pollution in 2010. Bakersfield is the second most polluted city in California. Pittsburgh, Penn. ranked third for short-term particle pollution and fifth for year round particle pollution.

All states, however, including states many associate with natural beauty and clean air, for instance Colorado, are facing the dangers of air pollution, and people are beginning to take action.

Denver brown cloud
Ever since the 1970s, pollution hanging over downtown Denver, famously known as “the Brown Cloud,” can often be clearly seen, especially on cold winter days.

The hazy skies above the city are due to Denver’s location at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, which causes temperature inversions where warm air, which is less dense, rises and traps the cooler air near the ground, trapping pollutants.

According to the ALA, ozone at ground level is very harmful to breathe, whereas if released into the stratosphere it is beneficial, because it blocks dangerous ultraviolet radiation.

State residents support legislation to clean the air
According to inventory data produced by the Colorado Department of Public Health from 2004 and 2005, oil and gas production facilities were accountable for more than 50 percent of all the volatile organic compounds released from stationary sources in Colorado, at times causing dangerous levels of ozone in the air.

In 2006, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission approved restrictions on the oil and gas industry to curb emissions and in 2010 approved a plan to replace power plants with commercial boilers to reduce “regional haze” in a unanimous vote.

The plan is expected to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 70,000 tons by 2018.

Colorado is typical. In the U.S., transportation is the largest single source of air pollution. It caused over half of the carbon monoxide, over a third of the nitrogen oxides, and almost a quarter of the hydrocarbons emitted in 2006, according to the EPA’s National Emissions Inventory Trends Report.

According the Denver Business Journal, the state’s coal mining industry opposed the plan, claiming that it will lose jobs in the coal industry and that electricity prices will rise.

In contrast, state residents are showing great support in the movement towards renewable energy. According to “Clean Air News” in Environment America, 79 percent of voters strongly prefer natural gas and renewable energy, such as wind and solar energy, to coal as an energy source for Colorado.

The poll also determined that 76 percent of state residents support Xcel Energy’s Clean Air Plan to comply with the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act of 2010 and shut down five forty-year old coal units in the metropolitan.

Even with a 1 percent increase in consumer prices, 71 percent of Coloradans polled would still support the plan, and with a 3 percent increase, 68 percent would.

Federal and state legislation has greatly reduced the number of visible brown cloud days in Colorado, and Pueblo and Loveland were determined to be two of the twelve cleanest cities in the State of the Air 2010 report.

College students are leading the way
According to an article in the online publication, Pollution Articles, there remains a lack of ecological consciousness about the issue of air pollution despite its continuing severity.

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Today’s generation of American college students, however, are among those showing the most passion towards a sustainable future — with cleaner air being part of that future. Daniel Horgan, author of the article “College students seeing green as the way to go,” articulates this passion as “a youthquake of activism.”

A 2008 Princeton Review survey determined that 63 percent of 10,300 college applicants said that a college’s commitment to the environment would affect their decision to go there.

There was also consensus of opinion among students interviewed at the University of Denver (DU), a small urban university in the U.S., that air pollution is, in fact, a serious problem, and that cars are the primary cause.

The solution: a change in perception
Jared Mazurek, a sophomore environmental science major at the university, is among those who are aware of the role autos play in air quality.

“Air pollution is a huge contributor to global warming and it comes from cars,” he said. “It’s a problem that faces future generations as pollutants like nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons stay in the atmosphere for many years.”

“Air pollution is worse than it’s been in years,” Nick Smith, a junior theater major at DU affirmed. “But there are a lot of possibilities to improve it.”

He said that the government has been trying to enact legislation to improve the quality of the air, but that there hasn’t been much actual change. “There is a lot of talk, but not a lot of action,” he stated.

Actual change, Smith said, will require “a complete change in perception.” Daniel Powell, a sophomore cognitive neuroscience major living in the Environmental Living and Learning Community at DU, agreed that the solution “depends on changing America’s individualistic and consumerist culture.”

According to the 2002 Emissions by Category Chart for Colorado produced by the Environmental Protection Agency, highway and off-highway vehicles were in fact the primary sources of pollutants — and by a large margin.

Reducing emissions from mobile sources
Smith said that legislation to restrict carbon emissions from stationary sources will help. However, he feels that the real solution is a major reduction in emissions from mobile sources, which depends largely on the general public’s effort to reduce its carbon footprint.

According to the 2002 Emissions by Category Chart for Colorado produced by the Environmental Protection Agency, highway and off-highway vehicles were in fact the primary sources of pollutants — and by a large margin.

Highway vehicles accounted for 1,709,008 tons of emissions that year, off-highway vehicles accounted for 1,328,198 tons, and the third largest single source, which was fuel combustion from electric utilities, accounted for 511,482 tons, less than half of both mobile sources.

Colorado is typical. In the U.S., transportation is the largest single source of air pollution. It caused over half of the carbon monoxide, over a third of the nitrogen oxides, and almost a quarter of the hydrocarbons emitted in 2006, according to the EPA’s National Emissions Inventory Trends Report.

All the university students interviewed said that they try to use public transportation, such as the Denver light rail, as much as possible to reduce their individual contribution to air pollution.

In contrast, Powell said, “Most people think that cars are terrible, but the bigger problem is how we design our buildings and infrastructure.” He said that the answer would rely on “more intuitive design, like solar roofs.”

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