Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Junk in the Air Even Worse than We Realized

• January 18, 2013 • 5:30 PM

Part of my youth was spent in the less fashionable western end of the Los Angeles metro area in a city called Pomona, named after the Roman goddess of fruit (which predicted the orange groves that would, for a time, mark this portion of the so-called Inland Empire). But the most common commodities at my time in the middle 1960s, as Dr. Demento would remind us, came from the smogberry trees; the fruit of factories and tailpipes was thick upon the horizon.

I still recall constantly wondering how the ancients could possibly dream up any identity for the stellar constellations that to me were at best one or two hazy bright spots in the darkest night sky. And this was at a time when the air was actually getting better in Southern California thanks to a variety of regional and national regulations, although no real improvement was seen for another two decades and the air is still pretty crappy way too often these days.

Pictures from Beijing this week make me realize just how much of a particulate bullet we missed in L.A., even as citizens and researchers draw parallel to both Los Angeles and 1952 London. As China Daily reports:

Experts say the intensity of pollution China faces today is not as severe as the US and Britain experienced 50 to 60 years ago, but the scale is much larger and the causes are far more complicated.

When the developed countries tackled air pollution caused by burning coal, industrial pollution was not a big problem, and so they could deal with the problem incrementally, says Ming Dengli, head of the international cooperation office at the Beijing environmental bureau.

The battle against PM2.5 and ozone pollution started at a very late stage in the process. It took London about 20 years to lose the title “The City of Fog” following the enactment of the Clean Air Act 1956. By comparison, China is still facing severe smog and haze 40 years after relevant laws were introduced.

PM2.5 refers to particles of pollution 2.5 microns and smaller. Finding a comparison for that size is a bit of a challenge, but know that there are 25,400* microns to the inch. So these particles are pretty small, compared to say a grain of black better, but pretty large when it’s jammed in your lungs or entering your blood stream. Back to the China Daily:

“My friends and I have started to make jokes along the lines of ‘Right now, it’s healthier to smoke in Beijing than to breathe the air’,” says Camille Chanlair, a French national who has lived in the city since 2008. “They all avoid going out when they see the pollution. Some have bought air purifiers.”

What’s worse about particulate matter is that it’s also a prime contributor to climate change, as new research published this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres confirms what was once suspected. That the sooty pollutant dubbed “black carbon”  adds to warming is widely acknowledged; and is one of the key reasons that cargo ships sailing through newly opened Arctic sea lanes may save fuel and yet increase global warming simultaneously. The new research IDs black carbon as the second-greatest human-caused source of climate change, after carbon dioxide. The old number two, methane, now comes in third.

Black carbon—whether from first-world sources or third—accomplishes this by absorbing heating sunlight, both when it’s in the air and when it settles down on otherwise reflective areas like snowfields. (See here for a quick rundown on the carbon rainbow.)

And while tackling pollutants like black carbon, as L.A. and London showed and Beijing may yet demonstrate, could be easier than turning around the spew of carbon dioxide, it won’t on its own curb climate change. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin, in a solid wrap-up detailing the black carbon paper, quotes atmospheric scientist Tami Bond:

“Mitigating black carbon is good for curbing short-term climate change, but to really solve the long-term climate problem, carbon dioxide emissions must also be reduced.”

Pollution you can see is scary; pollution you can’t see is scarier still.

* This post originally gave the wrong figure for the number of microns in an inch.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.