Isn’t There Plenty of Air to Breathe?
WHY worry about the air? When we look into the sky, it seems without limit, does it not?
“It may seem that way. But, remember, the astronauts had to take their own air supply when they took off from the earth. When you take a jet plane, the cabin has to have its air level artificially maintained.
This tells us something. What? That there is no useful air supply a few miles off the earth. The air you can breathe is found only in a relatively narrow band directly above the earth. It contains the oxygen that is vital for all human and animal life. That narrow band of usable air is now in serious danger.
The Air’s Self-cleaning Process
True, our earth’s atmosphere has a wonderful self-cleaning system built into it. The air is like an ocean with tides and currents in the form of winds and shifting air masses. The smoke from a few wood fires, for example, is quickly dispersed and dissipated. Floating solid particles from the smoke in time are washed out of the air by rain and snow. What about the gases?
Our planet’s air itself is, of course, a mixture of gases. Nitrogen forms about 78 percent and oxygen about 21 percent, the rest being minute quantities of argon, carbon dioxide, helium, and so forth. Remarkable processes work to keep that mixture free from change.
As Time magazine says: “With uncanny precision, the mixture [is] maintained by plants, animals and bacteria,” which use and return the gases at equal rates. “The result is a closed system, a balanced cycle in which nothing is wasted and everything counts.”
The precision is, indeed, amazing. Carbon dioxide, for example, forms only about one part in every three thousand parts of air by volume. When men and animals breathe air they use the oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. But plants do the opposite. They take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, maintaining the balance.
Lightning shoots through the air and causes nitrogen to form a compound that the raindrops carry down to the earth. There plants use it to grow. The plants, in turn, are eaten by animals or they die and decay. Bacteria acting on decaying plants and animal manure release nitrogen back into the air. The cycle is complete.
Some gases released naturally can be dangerous in sufficient quantity—like the ozone you smell after a thunderstorm. But the air’s self-cleaning system takes care of them, often within a few hours or days. They are flushed out through rain and snow, by their being extracted from the air by vegetation, or simply by settling slowly to the earth.
Well, then, what is there to worry about? Plenty!
How the Situation Has Changed
The evidence is that man is seriously tampering with this marvelous balance. It used to be that the atmosphere’s self-cleaning processes could cope with pollution and keep the air pure.
But the situation now is that the input of pollution is moving ahead of the output of purified air. The “airsheds” over the United States, Japan, Germany and other countries are steadily filling up with gases and particles that cause overloading. The natural cycles are being pressured beyond what they can handle.
Today, all the air in the United States is considered polluted to some degree. Notice the findings of scientists as reported in the New Haven Register: “The last vestige of clean air the center noted in the United States was near Flagstaff, Arizona, but it disappeared six years ago when . . . air pollution from the California coast reached the northern Arizona city.”
Biophysicist William Curby says that steady polluting has produced a huge cloud of floating filth hanging permanently over the entire East Coast of the United States. He says: “The loading rate of dirt particles over the East Coast is now ahead of the unloading rate.”
And the fouling is earth wide.
Germany’s Der Spiegel reports concerning that country’s average: “The air pollution in the Federal Republic [West Germany] is already seven times as bad as in the U.S.A.”
In Japan, Tokyo traffic police now spend only a few hours at a time on duty. Then they go to centers to breathe oxygen. Cafés and arcades in Tokyo have coin machines that dispense oxygen for shoppers.
The situation is so serious that scientists at an atmospheric research center in the United States predict that, at the present rate, “in 10 to 15 years from now every man, woman and child in the hemisphere will have to wear a breathing helmet to survive outdoors. Streets, for the most part, will be deserted. Most animals and much plant life will be killed off.”
“I Can’t See Any”
Much air pollution is in particle form—soot and dust. The housewife wiping her windowsill can tell you about that. So can the man who cleans his car.
However, perhaps you live in an area where the skies are often blue. Little or no soot collects on your windowsills and car. You may feel that air pollution does not affect you.
Keep in mind, though, that most air pollution is invisible. You cannot see it. And much of the time you cannot smell it either. But make no mistake—it is likely there in the form of invisible gases, some of which are deadly poisons when absorbed in sufficient quantity. And regularly breathing these even in small quantities will surely not help your health.
One of the invisible pollutants is carbon monoxide. It is colorless, odorless, tasteless—and deadly. If you were to run your car in a closed garage, the carbon monoxide would enter your lungs and bloodstream and suppress the ability of your red blood cells to carry oxygen. You would die of oxygen starvation.
Today millions of people in many cities are already suffering from oxygen ‘malnutrition,’ due mainly to the spiraling number of automobiles. According to one source, in just ten city areas of the United States, some 25 million tons of invisible carbon monoxide from automobiles are spewed into the air each year.
The atmosphere normally contains some sulfur due to ocean spray and volcanic gases. But scientists estimate that man’s automobiles, power plants and home furnaces are now shooting some 73 million tons of sulfur oxides into the atmosphere every year. When the air is moist, these convert into droplets of sulfuric acid, and corrode metal, eat away at stone and marble, increase acidity in lakes and rivers, and damage people’s lungs.
Scientific American magazine says that, under the influence of sunlight and the catalytic action of nitrogen oxides in the air, smog forms and hydrocarbons (normally inoffensive) that pour out from cars and factories are partly oxidized to form “peroxides” and “ozonides.” The magazine adds: “These compounds are the most toxic air pollutants known. They will cause damage to plants in concentrations of one part in 10 million parts of air.”
No wonder that bronchitis, asthma and all sorts of respiratory ailments are increasing rapidly. Emphysema is the fastest-growing cause of death in the United States, up 500 percent in the last ten years in New York city.
What can you do? Move to sunny, blue-skied Hawaii? But Hawaii now reports a doubling of respiratory diseases in the last few years. Why? Air pollution.
Surely there must be some remedy. The air was maintained pure for thousands of years with, as men say, “uncanny precision.” Who saw to that? Might not he be the One to solve the problem?
But along with air, we must have water to survive. What situation do we find there?
[Diagram on page 7]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Plants take in carbon dioxide, give off oxygen
Animals and humans take in oxygen, give off carbon dioxide
Lightning combines nitrogen with oxygen. Rain brings this to earth
Green plants provide food for animals and humans
Bacteria take nitrogen from the air for plants’ use
Bacteria act on decaying plants and animal manure; release nitrogen back into air. Other bacteria produce plant food