VOICES Hard lessons from Beijing about air pollution


The images are unforgettable – a huge city, filled with millions of people, with a thick, choking shroud of air pollution, obscuring the newly constructed sports facilities for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Those who shake their heads and comment, “that could never happen here,” when they see these images on television or in a newspaper may be surprised to know that it is happening here in Minnesota, even as you read this.

While Minnesota has no cities as massive as Beijing, and we don’t use high sulfur coal to heat and fuel our homes and factories as freely as the Chinese do, our large metropolitan areas do have one thing in common with the smog-clogged capitol of the world’s largest nation: in both places, tailpipe exhaust is a major source of air pollution and a serious risk to resident’s health.

Here in the North Star State, vehicle emissions are the single largest source of outdoor air pollution. While our geography and weather often help the exhaust from our vehicles to blow off before air quality alerts are issued, things are changing. There are more and more vehicles on our roads. Traffic is snarled more often, and for longer periods, as more and more motorists use our already overstrained systems of roads and highways. Increased use of mass transit and cleaner vehicle technologies helps, but can’t keep pace with the sheer number of diesel and gasoline engines, pumping pollution into our skies.

The Cost We Face

Cities like Beijing that allow air pollution problems to grow out of control face far more serious problems than the current embarrassment Chinese leaders are feeling as the world’s eyes turn to the Olympic Games and its smoggy outdoor venues. Our vehicles, like theirs, produce ozone pollution, particulate pollution, and greenhouse gases.

Children have a higher breathing rate than adults relative to their body weight and lung surface area, meaning a greater dose of pollution is delivered to their lungs than healthy adults in the same environment. A study conducted by the American Lung Association shows that as many as 27.1 million American children age 13 and under, and over 1.9 million children with asthma are potentially exposed to unhealthful levels of ozone, a number that is likely even higher under the Environmental Protection Agency’s new outdoor ozone standards.

Dozens of studies link airborne fine particles, such as those found in diesel exhaust, to increased hospital admissions for respiratory diseases, chronic obstructive lung disease, pneumonia, heart disease. It is believed to be a factor in as many as 60,000 premature deaths in the United States every year.

Estimates of the economic and health costs of polluted air vary, according to differing models and theories. We do know that in the case of Beijing, shutting down the factories and ordering at least half the vehicles off the roads during the Summer Games will likely cost millions, if not billions of dollars in lost work hours.

Signs of Change

For the first time in decades, people in Minnesota and other parts of the nation are driving fewer miles and using less gasoline and diesel fuel. Here in Minnesota, use of mass transit is up sharply, a 16 percent increase in light rail riders and nearly seven percent increase in Minnesotans catching the bus instead of driving. New hybrid electric-diesel buses are now becoming common sights in the Twin Cities, and Minnesota’s biodiesel requirement signed into law in 2008 has the potential to reduce particulate pollution from diesel engines by 12 percent statewide within seven years.

Like in other parts of the nation, Minnesotans are dumping fuel-guzzling large trucks and SUVs in favor of smaller vehicles, which produce fewer emissions as they burn less fuel.

With more than 350 outlets, Minnesota already leads the nation in E85 infrastructure and sales, which continue to be brisk in Minnesota in 2008. Last year, Minnesota drivers prevented more than 85,000 tons of lifecycle CO2 from entering our air by choosing E85 instead of gasoline.

In southwestern Minnesota, more and more wind turbines are going up as the state continues to be one of the national leaders in wind generated electricity. Simple measures like switching to compact florescent light bulbs reduce the amount of coal burned simply to keep the lights on.

As we see images of Beijing’s smog-filled skies, we should think hard about how our own skies will look in a decade or two. Are we going to continue to seek and find cleaner sources of fuel and energy in Minnesota, or will we succumb to the easy seduction of fossil fuels if prices at the pump continue to drop? As a state and as a nation, we need to make a choice now, and it won’t be an easy one. Does Beijing’s dirty air show us a vision of our future, or a warning of what will happen if we don’t change paths?

The answer is up to us.

Robert Moffitt is communications director for the American Lung Association of Minnesota, based in Saint Paul, Minn. He can be reached at Robert.moffitt@alamn.org.