“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 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 tha 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 (S02) and microscopic bits of dust and ash. S02 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, S02 is a precursor to other, even more noxious chemicals collectively known as sulfates. Once in the air S02 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 S02 in the coal-belching plants of the Midwest, for example, and falling back to earth as deadly acid rain, are suspected of decimating fish life in Adirondack lakes and stunting soybean crops in farmers’ fields.
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 S02 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 S02 concentrations reached even 120 micrograms per cubic meter: the current daily ceiling for S02 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. 1 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 in order 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 S02 and particulate emission below federal ceilings. These regulations in effect transfer the social costs of using coal from a helpless general public to the people who benefit most directly from it.
For the moment the only way to reduce those emissions is to equip 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 S02. 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 S02 emissions may be loosened accordingly. But the federal S02 standards are political limits, not medical ones, reflecting what is feasible rather than what is wise. There is no known safe level of S02 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 positively 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. ●