Clearing the air

Global pollution expert Dr. C. Arden Pope about the crusade to purify the air we breathe.

reading power 298 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
reading power 298 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Twenty years ago, a steel mill - known to be the major cause of air pollution in Provo, Utah - was closed down for over a year in a labor dispute. Fortunately, an economics and statistics researcher at Brigham Young University, Dr. C. Arden Pope, noticed that the number of children hospitalized for lung disorders during the strike dropped by half to two-thirds. In an era when heavy industry was regarded only as a good thing, Pope concluded that some businesses may be harmful to the environment and the health of residents, and thus in need of government oversight. SINCE THEN, Pope, now a professor at the same university, has come to be regarded as a world expert in the links between air pollution and ill health. Thanks to his painstaking research and many published papers (in journals such as Circulation), legal controls over levels of particulate matter (PM) and ozone have been made stricter in the US and elsewhere. Pope goes out of his way to stress that he has not done this singlehandedly, but that numerous investigations around the world have forced governments to toughen regulations to reduce smog, soot and ozone. He visited Israel recently (not for the first time) to participate in several events, including a Technion conference on the human and economic cost of pollution, another one at Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha, and to give a Jerusalem lecture sponsored by the Environment and Health Fund. He found time while staying at Jerusalem's Mount Zion Hotel for an interview with the Post. A devout Mormon, Pope observes the sect's prohibitions against alcohol, coffee, caffeine-laced drinks and smoking, although he has just one wife, Ronda, a nurse by training. Mormon polygamy, he notes, existed in the early 19th century, but is prohibited now by US and contemporary Mormon law. "If a Mormon were to marry a second wife," he explains, "he would be excommunicated by the church." The Mormon Church has about 13 million members - similar to the number of Jews in the world - but the Mormons are growing in number. Most live in the US, but there are also large concentrations in South America, especially in Mexico. Pope was born in Utah but grew up in Wyoming and Idaho. His father was a student of agriculture and education at Utah State University, and worked as a rancher and schoolteacher while his university-educated mother raised their eight children. Pope and his wife have two sons - both professors. The corporate owner of the Provo steel mill, he recalls, decided to close it due to losses during the strike, but a local group purchased it; the mill continued to pollute; eventually, it went bankrupt. Pope's restrospective studies on lung disorders in Provo children were based on respiratory data that proved residents were much healthier when the steel mill wasn't functioning. He wrote a scientific paper on the strike and its implications in 1989, and it was published in the highly respected American Journal of Public Health. "It generated a lot of interest, both positive and negative. Air pollution scientists appreciated it, but many in polluting industries were angry, and criticized both me and the study." POPE WASN'T the only researcher at the time who recognized that air pollution damages health. Dr. Douglas Dockery at Harvard University and Dr. Joel Schwartz at the US federal Environmental Protection Agency were actively studying the issue. "We published early papers at about same time, and were getting similar results. Then I began to collaborate with them." In 1992 to 1993, Pope took leave from his university in Utah and went to Harvard to conduct more studies, not only with Dockery but with others at New York University, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Ottawa. "We did studies for the American Cancer Society and were invited to do investigations in Canada, Brazil and Thailand." Asked for his impressions of Israel's air during his visit, Pope notes: "It is a beautiful country, but when you walk along the roads here, you see a lot of car and trick emissions. Traffic is a very important source - and so are coal-fired power plant, petroleum refineries and copper smelters. You can put filters and scrubbers on the smoke they release to reduce the damage." Obviously, he says, combustion of tobacco leaves and exposing yourself and people around you to such toxic particulate matter are extremely harmful; if you also live in an area with polluted air, your health is at even higher risk. IN THE US between the early 1970s and 1987, air-quality standards were much less strenuous than they are today, and the authorities allowed small suspended particles (measured in micrograms per cubic meter) in the air. Very large ones don't affect health much, he says, as they are too large to evade the nose's natural filtration system and get into the lungs. In 1987, the US Environmental Protection Agency set stricter limits on the smaller particles. "There is no question today that breathing fine particulate matter harms health," Pope declares, "although smoking is much more dangerous, since it can cause lung cancer as well as asthma and pneumonia in adults; it can also trigger bronchitis, broncholotis and pneumonia in both children and adults." Elevated inflammation of tissues in the body increases the risk of atherosclerotic diseases; smoking not only initiates the atherosclerotic process, but also speeds up its progress. This means strokes as well as coronary artery disease, heart attacks and cardiac insufficiency. Pope is also an expert on ozone - the harmful oxygen derivative. "Ozone significantly contributes to bad air. It is a very substantial oxidant. We breathe it, oxidation takes place and oxygen-free radicals increase in the body cells. This creates more oxidative stress, and can result in pulmonary inflammation and cancers." If you reduce the emissions of photochemicals, you can reduce ozone concentrations. Ozone, he explains, is "not emitted from any source but produced by photochemical reactions and pollutants. It is trickier to control than particulate matter. It can penetrate indoor spaces, but at least it dissipates indoors." Only two weeks after Pope's visit, Israel's Environmental Protection Ministry issued its annual air quality report for 2007, which noted high concentrations of ozone and particulate matter not only in the cities but also in rural areas. The cities with the highest levels were Tel Aviv and nearby Petah Tikva, followed by Modi'in, Kiryat Tivon and Haifa. Next came Jerusalem, high on a hill, and Karmiel in the Galilee. The least polluted air was found in Yavneh, Hadera (despite its well-known power plant chimneys), Eilat, Ashkelon and Beersheba. The new report noted that the air quality of the Dan Region and Jerusalem has improved compared to previous years, thanks to power plants' gradual switch to natural gas from coal, and the cleaner petrol sold in gas stations. In most cities, according to the report, there were fewer days of high or very high pollution in 2007 compared to the year before. But the discovery of high ozone levels in Haifa, Karmiel, Afula and Modi'in, for example, is cause for worry. Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra said his office is preparing to enforce the new Clean Air Law, perform surprise checks at industrial plants and institute long-term programs with the local authorities to further reduce air pollution. Pope notes that natural gas is indeed much cleaner than petroleum fuels or coal. Biodiesel made from plant sources could be of some help, but "we in the US don't have enough to generate substantial power from it." Unlike the US, where much electricity is generated by hydroelectric plants, Israel can only dream of this alternative. America is desperately looking for alternative fuels not only to reduce pollution but to loosen the grip of the oil-rich countries. "A plug-in electric car is likely to be one of the most important changes in our transportation system," Pope says. Hybrid cars - now imported into Israel by the thousands - that take advantage of energy produced on braking could also help. "The Toyota-Prius type is wonderful technology, but it still uses gasoline power at higher speeds." "It is not clear how long it will take to have fully electric cars, or how long the power in the batteries will last," Pope says. "We would have to change the electric grid and supply station system. There could be 'gas stations' that exchange spent battery packs with charged ones. Ingenuity could lead to the use of solar panels on cars. As for the well-known days of hamsin (withering hot and dry winds accompanied by flying sand articles from the south and southwest) that hit Israel, Pope says that the farther these particles travel, the smaller they are. But there is no clear consensus on how dangerous such natural crustal matter is. "Research I have done shows it is not as dangerous as particulate matter from pollutants. Wind-blown dust storms don't concern me as much as stagnant air days, with their buildup of vehicle and industrial pollution fixed in one place." On such days, young and old people and those with chronic diseases had best stay indoors as much as possible and avoid exerting themselves when outdoors. There is no doubt that the public can breath a little easier, knowing that Prof. C. Arden Pope will continue the research to which he has devoted his life.