“A Little More Dirt in Your Lungs”
An Illinois governor preaches pollution
August 3, 1979
What must be taught can be forgotten, I guess. For decades my journalistic colleagues and I argued the case for regulation of airborne poisons birthed by sulfur compounds. We thought we had prevailed—rules were passed, machines installed, the air cleared up. Now that case must be put again in the face of attempts by the Trumpish GOP to discard the rules and shut down the machines.
I shouldn't be surprised. Two generations of journalists after us did not argue that case—it was old news—so two generations of Americans don't know the basic science, the history, or the public health consequences of sulfur pollutants of the type I addressed in this 1979 piece.
“We’ve got to look hard at the trade-offs between the ideals of a perfect environment and the realities of an industrial society,” Gov. James Thompson said in Chicago on July 24. He was speaking to a meeting of the National Urban League, arguing that it will be necessary to relax environmental laws for the next decade to allow increased burning of coal until new energy sources are developed. “You may have to wash your car a little more, wash your windows a little more, and put a little more (dirt) in your lungs," he Said, “but God, half of us in the nation smoke every day and put more in the lungs that doesn’t belong there.’’
That is a remarkably silly thing to say, even for a man who apparently wants to be vice-president. Mustering private folly in support of public policy is never a good idea, in this case more than most; people die from smoking cigarettes, after all. One might just as well argue against traffic control because some people run red lights.
The price we all will pay if Washington takes Thompson's advice is much higher than an occasional extra wash job. Coal smoke does not, as the governor implied, merely obscure the view or smell bad or make cars and buildings dirty. Coal smoke (or particular elements in it) makes people sick. Indeed, when breathed in sufficient quantities over a long enough time, it can even kill them. Thompson ought to know that: he is the chief executive of a major coal state in which coal emissions have been the cause of constant controversy since he took office. When Illinois coal is burned it gives off sulfur dioxide (SO2) and microscopic bits of dust and ash. SO2 is a toxic, corrosive gas whose irritant effect on human lung tissue is multiplied when it is breathed in conjunction with these particulates.
More insidiously, SO2 is a precursor to other, even more noxious chemicals collectively known as sulfates. Once in the air, SO2 oxidizes to form sulfur trioxide, among other things, which in turn can be transformed in the presence of water vapor into sulfuric acid. Sulfates can be transported hundreds of miles by winds. Sulfuric acid mists that originate as SO2 in the coal-belching plants of the Midwest, for example, and fall back to earth as deadly acid rain are suspected of decimating fish life in Adirondack lakes and stunting soybean crops in farmers’ fields downwind.
The effects of sulfur-derived pollutants on human lung tissue are no less violent. Depending on the intensity and duration of the pollution, increased concentrations of SO2 and its chemical descendants have been shown to aggravate symptoms among sufferers with chronic lung ailments like bronchitis and trigger increased attacks of asthma. Epidemiological studies have linked sulfur oxide pollution to higher rates of chronic lung diseases among the young, even increases in death rates. In some cases these effects are visible even at concentrations below those required by current federal clean air regulations. To pick just one case among many: A 1969 study found substantial increases in illness among Chicago’s older bronchitis patients when daily SO2 concentrations reached even 120 micrograms per cubic meter: the current daily ceiling for SO2 is 365 micrograms per cubic meter. In fact, “dirty air” is a misnomer. Journalists and politicians each would serve their callings better if they began referring to it as “dangerous air.”
In 1976, Carl Shy, the director of the University of North Carolina’s Institute for Environmental Studies, addressed the fourth annual Illinois energy conference in Chicago on the subject “Health Effects of the Fossil Fuel Energy System.” He said in part: “Ambient concentrations of fossil fuel pollutants have been associated with a remarkable array of health effects in substantial portions of the population, and these concentrations and effects occurred as a result of normal operation of the fossil fuel energy system. I believe that society has put up with these pervasive health consequences,” Shy concluded, “partly out of a lack of awareness of the risk and because partly there really was little alternative.”
It still is widely thought that there is no immediate alternative to coal. If we come to rely on coal as a short-term energy crutch, however, the governor ought to be talking about ways to tighten environmental laws governing the use of coal, not loosen them. The public health demands it, even if the public opinion polls do not.
It is not necessary to turn Illinois into a cesspool in order to burn more Illinois coal. Neither is it necessary to ban the burning of Illinois coal to enjoy cleaner air. The fulminations of some legislators to the contrary, there is no law against burning high-sulfur coal, only regulations that ban its use in newer plants unless steps are taken to keep the resulting SO2 and particulate emission below federal ceilings. These regulations in effect transfer the social costs of using coal from a helpless general public to consumers who benefit most directly from it.
For the moment the only way to reduce those emissions is to equip power plants with scrubbers. Scrubbers are sometimes balky to operate, as utilities complain. They are expensive to pay for, as consumers are beginning to realize. They tie up capital for nonproductive uses, as economists warn. But as long as leaders in government and industry decree that this country will run on fossil fuels, scrubbers and machines like them will remain a necessary (a very necessary) evil. The cost of burning coal cleanly is high, and Thompson isn’t the only person who’d like to avoid paying it. But the fact remains that the cost of not burning it cleanly—in lives cut short, in medical costs, property damage, reduced crop yields—may be much higher.
At present, only three of Illinois’s 102 counties are regarded by the IEPA as “nonattainment areas,’’ meaning areas in which air fails to meet federal annual ambient air quality standards for SO2. This fact has led some to argue that Illinois air is as clean or cleaner than it needs to be, and that the regulatory noose around SO2 emissions may be loosened accordingly. But the federal SO2 standards are political limits, not medical ones, reflecting what is feasible rather than what is wise. There is no known safe level of SO2 or its chemical cousins.
It should be remembered that the people arguing loudest for the relaxation of clean air standards are people who make money by digging, selling, or burning coal. A more prudent man would discount their claims accordingly, but Thompson apparently has taken them at face value, proving again that the only thing worse than a corrupt politician is a gullible one—or an ambitious one. Thompson swore in Chicago that he would be willing to breathe dirtier air for ten years or so until someone came up with a better way of doing things. He may be allowed to be careless with his health; indeed, under the circumstances we may wish to encourage it. But he hasn’t the right to be so cavalier with the health of the citizens of the state he occasionally governs.
The choice is not, as Thompson has it, between energy and clean air. Rather, that isn’t the only choice. Conservation is one untried option; it is possible to have economic growth sufficiently vigorous to save the career of every politician in Illinois without substantially more power plants than we have now if we husband what we have now more wisely. Development of alternative energies will take longer, though here again state officials are doing little except casting longing eyes toward Washington.
What Thompson told us in Chicago is that of the alternatives before us, he has opted for the easiest. It is also likely to prove the most lethal, but by the time the consequences of his advocacy begin showing up in the statistics, Thompson will be out of office and so comfortably beyond retribution. In Chicago, Thompson said that we can no longer afford the luxury of ignoring coal. It would have been more accurate to note that we can not afford the luxury of burning it.
It’s been said of Jim Thompson that he lacks an environmental consciousness—one of the results perhaps of spending too much of one’s life inside chauffered automobiles. It seems nearer the mark to observe that Thompson, like so many lawyers, sometimes forgets that changing laws has consequences in the real world outside courtrooms and legislative chambers. Thompson, of course, is being touted as a vice-presidential possibility for the 1980 elections. He is the perfect man for the job. Based on what he said in Chicago, we could hope for no better fate for him, because no one listens to anything a vice-president says. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
Politics & government
Arts & culture