Air Pollution and Your Lungs

There's so much pollution in the air now that if it weren't for our lungs there'd be no place to put it all.

—Robert Orben

Long, long ago, on a planet far, far away, the air was pure. It contained only nitrogen (78 percent), oxygen (21 percent), argon (1 percent), and trace amounts of other gases necessary to make complex life possible, such as water vapor (0-6 percent), carbon dioxide (0.034 percent), ozone, nitrous oxide, and a few others. But then the planet's inhabitants, believing themselves of superior intelligence and recognizing that about 10,000 quarts of air and several billion dust particles enter a person's nose and mouth every day, decided to not only increase the amounts of some of the trace gases but also to add other, more creative things. They increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Some gaseous organic compounds were thrown in as well. Then, to spice up the mixture, they added to the air they breathed particulate materials such as microscopic soot (black smoke), lead, asbestos, rubber, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and other interesting substances.

The results were predictable. There were great increases in respiratory diseases such as bacterial infections, bronchitis, allergies, and asthma. The incidence of eye infections also rose. Babies born in the areas where the air had undergone the most change had smaller heads, lower weight at birth, damaged DNA, and increased rates of birth defects. Many died. Children had smaller lungs. Respiratory disease became the greatest killer of children on the planet. Elderly people also died prematurely, often from heart attacks because their weakened lungs could not process enough oxygen. Bus drivers in urban areas had increased cancer rates, chromosomal abnormalities, and DNA damage from breathing diesel fumes all day.

Crop yields were reduced as pollutant haze reduced the penetration of sunlight and decreased photosynthesis, the process by which plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water to food and plant fiber. Fruit size and weight decreased. Constituents in the haze affected plant metabolism. Market value was reduced because of spotting on leaves and fruit. Plant death in the field increased as the vegetation became more vulnerable to injury from diseases and pests.

Clearly, experimentation with the atmosphere in which they had evolved was not a good idea for the people of this planet. Because of their superior intelligence they decided to scale down or end the experiment. But it would not be easy.

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