The facts behind air pollution

By Samantha Hulkower

One of the fun things I've found living in Israel, is that while looking for work in their career, many olim chadashim (new immigrants), find themselves working in jobs they never would have imagined for themselves while in the 'old country'. For me, that means working as a high school environmental science teacher. The work I do to prepare lesson plans not only gives me interesting statistics to impress friends at Shabbat dinner (for example, the world is scheduled to run out of oil in less than 50 years!), but it also helps me to think about the world in ways we sometimes take for granted as adults. While teaching ecosystems to my students, I was explaining that the planet is a closed system - nothing comes in or goes out. When we throw away our trash, there really is no 'away' when you're in a closed system. 

Pollution is one of those things that you know is a problem, but really take for granted how damaging it can really be, until it hits home. I saw my facebook news feed light up with postings about how China's air pollution is so bad, that they broadcast fake sunrises, so that citizens can still remember what the sunrise looks like. It turns out, that this is false, and the picture is taken out of context (actually a still from a tourism ad). This provided a great talking point for not only checking that your source is valid before using it in a research paper (or major national cable network), but as to what this oblique concept - invisible air pollution - really means for us in our everyday lives. 

Some people might be familiar with the catchy phrase 'the solution to pollution is dillution.' Which means, as long as whatever toxin you are putting into the environment can be watered down, it won't be so toxic. This can be effective to a certain extent, but after a while, there may be no where left to go. Part of the reason why everyone was so quick to believe the China air pollution story, is because there is so much air pollution there.  Executives of international corporations often flee China before their tenure is up because the horrendous air pollution makes them, and their families, so sick so quickly. 

Ground level air pollution is usually referred to as 'smog'. There are two types of smog - the first is just your typical air pollution, usually portrayed as a brown haze hanging over a city that is extra visible when you are driving up to it. The other, called industrial smog, is air pollution that comes from a variety of sources - it can be the exhaust pipes of trucks and cars, from the smoke stacks of power plants or oil refineries. It tends to be made up of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and sulfur dioxide. Air quality tends to be worse in the summer because of photochemical smog. This is a process whereby the pollution in the air reacts with sunlight to create new and often more hazardous toxic chemical compounds in the air. While it's easy to chalk up China's problems to the fact they have not reached the level of Western country, developed countries are not immune to this problem themselves. In the US, most people who live in major cities will hear about the 'Air Quality Index' during the news reports, at least during the summer (when the sun shines the most and photochemical smog is most likely to be a problem). This is a system designed to let people know if the air is safe for those with respiratory problems (and the rest of us).  Israel has their own site to monitor air pollution around the country here

Air quality tends to be worse in the summer due to photochemical smog, which forms when these compounds react with sunlight to form ozone (good when it's in the stratosphere, protecting us from UV rays, bad when it's at ground level), and basically are really bad to breathe. The elderly, children, and anyone with breathing conditions such as asthma, have a hard time when levels of these pollutants reach a threshold that is much lower than would irritate most healthy people. This is exacerbated in the summer, when the hot, heavy air becomes stagnant, a process known as temperature inversion, where cold air up in the atmosphere traps the hot, polluted air, and we're stuck with it. This is why often rush-hour is the worst time to be out in the summer. 

Sometimes, it doesn't matter how much effort a city or country puts into cleaning up their own act - they can still be knocked off course by dirty neighbors. Israel, who has made leaps and bounds over the years reducing the amount of hazardous materials being released into the air in this tiny country, still has to contend with air pollution that makes its way across the Mediterranean from Europe and North Africa. Tests conducted by Hebrew University found that most of the year, most of the air pollution Israelis are being exposed to comes from outside of Israel. 

Israel is doing its part to reduce pollution originating from within the nation. The government has talked about incentivizing carpooling, such as through HOV lanes or reduced tolls for those shlepping together. While many major cities around the world are switching over their diesel buses to liquid natural gas, Israel is going even further to reduce the emissions from transportation by launching electric buses, the first of which started operating recently in Tel Aviv. Within five years 25% of the fleet is expected to be completely electric. 

While investing in technologies that reduce air pollution don't always come cheap, a recent survey found that air pollution costs the country 8.8 billion shekels every year in illness and lost wages. In comparison, a proposed 140 million shekel plan to reduce electricity consumption and thereby reduce the pollution produced by coal-fired power plants. Don't worry, there won't be any energy rationing - rather the reduction will be achieved through phasing out old, energy hungry appliances (like dishwashers and fridges) for newer, more efficient ones, in addition to looking to generate additional electricity from solar power. 

So the next time you are standing on the street and you see black smoke spewing out the tailpipe of an old truck, you'll know that even though the smoke seems to disappear, it's really going somewhere - hopefully not into your lungs.

Samantha Hulkower is an Olah Chadasha, living in Jerusalem. She enjoys trying to speak Hebrew, finding the humor in every situation (especially dating), and is looking forward to the day she can successfully argue b'Ivrit. You can also view her blogs Curls of Wisdom on life in Israel, and ToBuildAndToKeep on environmental issues in Israel.

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