When you can't breathe, nothing else matters. —American Lung Association
Each of us takes a breath every 4 seconds, about 8.5 million breaths per year. When resting, you and I inhale about 2,500 gallons of air per day, 7 quarts per minute. That's 1,500 trillion (1.5,000,000,000,000) gallons per day for the world's population of 6 billion. The molecules of air we breathe were at one time in the lungs of Beethoven, Napoleon, Attila the Hun, Jesus, and Moses. When doing heavy work—that is, huffing and puffing—the daily amount for each person rises from 2,500 to 15,000 gallons. An average American breathes 3,400 gallons.2 We use a lot of air. It would be nice if it were clean. Should a "Right to Breathe" be added to our Bill of Rights?
The noxious gases in our air that are monitored by urban air-quality authorities are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone, and carbon monoxide.
In 2004, more than half of all Americans lived in counties that did not meet the EPA standard for at least one of these pollutants. The problem is worldwide. Twenty of the 24 megacities of the world (more than 10 million people) do not pass muster for all of these gases and lead. A few cities have succeeded in improving their air somewhat during the past few years, but in most cities the air has continued to worsen. In Athens the death rate jumps by 12 percent when the level of sulfur dioxide exceeds a critical threshold.3 In New Delhi, 20 percent of the traffic police at busy intersections need regular medical attention for lung problems. Soon the number of coughs per hour in these cities may rival the number of words spoken.
Perhaps more distressing than increases in coughs is the effect of traffic fumes on male sperm and, therefore, reproductive success. In a study of male toll-booth attendants on Italian motorways, a recent investigation found the men had poorer-quality sperm than other young and middle-aged workers in the same area.4
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