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

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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