Sunday, February 19, 2017

Airing grievances over the air we breathe

My mother died on Mother's Day in 2009, from complications of a long and ugly battle with Alzheimer's disease.  I don't have to tell you about what the disease did to her, because we've all heard these stories before.

Before the disease moved in, she was a brilliant woman.  She overcame all kinds of odds to earn her a PhD in physics from Stanford University in the 1960's; she battled sexism again to get a job at NASA in the 1970's; and she had a long and prolific career in exploratory space science. And then she became paranoid about toilets, obsessed with sticky notes attached to every conceivable object in the house, and cut off in her own mind from recognizing even her closest family members.

It says something about the character of her mind that the day before she died, while she was suffering from a broken hip, almost deaf and blind, and hospitalized because of her dementia -- that when her nurse suggested, "Carol, maybe you want to lay down in bed," -- my mother immediately retorted, "I think you mean lie down."

That Alzheimer's:  maybe a person could correctly argue that my mom helped to bring this disease upon herself.  In addition to her stunning intellect and her fierce determination to succeed, my mom also had a knack for downing the booze.  She was, my sisters and I believe, a functional alcoholic all her life.  The ties between Alzheimer's and Alcohol are not irrevocable, but they are well documented.  And so maybe my mother's drinking was her eventual downfall . . . we'll never know.

I was thinking about my mom the other day because a newspaper article highlighted a recent study that shows that air pollution, like alcohol, contributes to dementia.  If the study's findings extend beyond their 11-year database to the more general population, it could mean that as many as one fifth of all dementia cases around the globe could be linked to air pollution.

What's a person to do?  I do my best to lead my weird little low-trash life, avoiding disposables and bringing glass jars to market.  I walk to work, and I urge my family toward bikes instead of cars.  I can limit the damage that I do . . . but I can't change the air that I breathe.   In fact, the whole beautiful county I live in, here in the heart of Amish farmland with our verdant fields and heavily agrarian history, has some of the worst air quality in the nation.  Power plants all around us -- in western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley -- contribute to the problem, as does pollution from the big nearby cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

In the same way that my mom's drinking didn't merely lead to the problem of dementia (there were anger issues and occasional violence and certainly some strained relationships), the problem of air pollution goes way beyond its dementia-causing difficulties.  It goes even beyond the merely human problem that it contributes to premature deaths, asthma, heart attacks, and lung cancer.  For me, as a Christian, I believe that I'm supposed to be a steward of this wonderful creation that a loving God spoke into existence.  There's something spiritual and eternal about this world we live in, and I'm supposed to tend to it and care for it, not exploit it and destroy it.

As a lone person, I can't do much to change the air around me.  And that's why it's so important to me that my elected officials -- my public servants -- work to protect our air and water from harm.  There's a bill that's passed the House of Representatives and is headed for the Senate -- Joint Resolution 36 -- that wants to eliminate regulations that were designed to help prevent gas leaks or "flaring" (burning excess gas just to dispose of it).  I can understand why companies want to avoid these regulations -- just like I could understand why my mom wanted to drink so much.  But she was putting herself and her loved ones at risk, and so are the companies that turn our natural resources into money and soot.

Sometimes you just need to have an intervention.  My mom didn't listen when my sisters and I tried to talk with her, but I hope that my senators will.


  1. When burned correctly coal fired plants release only water vapor and CO2, which is not a pollutant, but rather a gas necessary for life itself. You do a fabulous job of caring for the earth and are such a good example. But don't worry too much about air, after all, stress is a killer too! Keep up the good work.

    1. Rozy! Good to hear from you. I've been wondering what your take on this was going to be. I'm glad to know how you see this. Do you have any references for that water/CO2 conversion, or any examples of coal-burning plants that actually do what you say? I haven't seen any of these reports myself. I'd be glad to learn more.

      At any rate, Joint Resolution 36 isn't about coal. It's about allowing natural gas leaks and gas burning directly into the air, and both of these activities are known to create environmental and human health damage. Since my county ALREADY has many days each summer when the radio and TV tells people to stay inside because of bad air, I'd like to try to minimize that.

    2. This is where I've gotten the best information on environmental issues. It's biblically based, and oriented to the idea of stewardship or taking care of the earth. I sure hope your issues can be resolved in a way that is the best for all concerned, which is not always easy.

    3. Rozy, I see that this website has a lot of opinions, but I don't see much evidence. That evidence for the opinions was what I was trying to find. For example, the Cornwall site has a petition claiming global climate disruption is non-existent, and that attempts to combat climate disruption are harmful to the poor of the world. But they don't link to any primary (or even secondary studies) to support this argument.

      In contrast, in 2015 the US military claimed that "Global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries" -- see this link, which is from the department of defense site.

      Similarly, World Vision, a christian ministry serving impoverished people around the world, claims that "Climate change and environmental degradation are among the greatest challenges facing humanity. Greenhouse-gas emissions and over-exploitation of natural resources are at the root of the problem and are causing a rise in global temperatures. Rising temperatures are causing a number of impacts including a rise in sea levels, increased frequency of droughts, floods, and other destructive events."
      (here's the link):

      Okay, so two opposite claims. I'm inclined to believe that the military isn't making up the threats they see ahead of us, and that World Vision has a birds-eye view of what's happening in countries I can't visit. If I actually care about protecting the poor of the world, I want to see the evidence that underlies the claims about how I ought to do it.

      Most (okay, all ) of the scientific studies that I've actually read say that pollution is a serious problem, not only for us here in the US, but all over the world. I haven't seen any actual evidence to the contrary, I've just heard people say that there *is* such evidence, but not provide it.

  2. I'm a random lurker biology prof. reading the above compelled me to add my comment that the information at the suggested website isn't supported by scientific evidence. at all. As a biologist, seeing that type of information presented as scientifically-supported fact is really frustrating. We're clearly failing at education!