Beth Gardiner: What Are The Consequences Of Breathing Dirty Air? Journalist Beth Gardiner and activist Yvette Arellano explain the long-term health effects of air pollution. Yvette lives in a Houston neighborhood near the largest petrochemical complex in the U.S.
NPR logo

Beth Gardiner: What Are The Consequences Of Breathing Dirty Air?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/956918703/956984446" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Beth Gardiner: What Are The Consequences Of Breathing Dirty Air?

Beth Gardiner: What Are The Consequences Of Breathing Dirty Air?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/956918703/956984446" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today - breath.

BETH GARDINER: I don't think there's anything more fundamental to life than breathing. You know, I can't think of any other activity that if you stopped doing it for a few minutes, you're finished (laughter). It's - you know, literally, the definition of being alive - right? - or not being alive is that you're not breathing.

ZOMORODI: This is Beth Gardiner. She's an environmental journalist.

GARDINER: I am the author of "Choked: Life And Breath In The Age Of Air Pollution."

ZOMORODI: We've all heard that dirty air affects our lungs and hearts. But Beth has spent the last few years reporting on new research, research that shows how pollution may have longer-term effects on our health and even damage our brains. And it's not surprising who is most at risk.

GARDINER: One thing that is really clear about air pollution is that it really intersects with all the preexisting fractures in our society. It is still a problem that breaks along lines of economic inequality and racial injustice.

ZOMORODI: Like in Houston, Texas, specifically a neighborhood called Manchester, next to 52 miles of oil refineries - the largest petrochemical complex in the U.S.

GARDINER: So Houston is also a port city, and the ships coming in and out and all the trucks and things that are associated with that are also highly polluting. So the neighborhood of Manchester is just really bearing a disproportionate brunt of air pollution. And obviously, the health consequences of this are devastating.

ZOMORODI: As part of her work, Beth has interviewed local community activists there, like Yvette Arellano.

YVETTE ARELLANO: If someone were to come into our community, into my apartment, they would be shocked at the fact that, you know, between 3 and 5 in the morning, they're going to be hit with these extremely pungent smells that can go everything from an extremely, like, saccharine, super sweet smell that's unnatural to smelling, you know, burning basketballs and sneakers because a lot of the facilities are actually plastic-producing and resin-producing facilities.

So you never know what you're going to get hit with. So from the time that we wake up to the time our head hits our pillow, you could be easily sitting inside, you know, having dinner and get hit with these smells. And the smells can obviously impact our direct health. So my nephew, you know, he was born with asthma. Asthma continues to be a problem, you know, and upper respiratory issues continue to be a problem in our family. I myself struggle with reproductive health issues and skin rashes.

That's the reality for a lot of mothers and children and just parents, guardians in general. Like, a simple act of going to the park can be cancelled by strong fumes emitting from down the waterway. It can be feeling sick, you know, having headaches, the need to throw up, while you're walking down the street to go get an iced tea. It can mean that you are barricaded in your home because there is a chemical disaster, a flare or an explosion at a facility, which happens a lot more often than what people think. And in those occasions, we're locked in our homes. And it's ridiculous.

ZOMORODI: Even if you don't live near an oil refinery, just walking down a busy city street or going to school next to a highway can increase your chances of all kinds of health problems. Here's Beth Gardiner on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GARDINER: I would have been pretty ready to believe that dirty air could trigger asthma attacks and other breathing problems, too. What shocked me was how much further the effects actually go. The evidence is overwhelming. Scientists have linked air pollution to increased rates of heart attacks, strokes, many kinds of cancer, dementia, Parkinson's disease, miscarriages, premature birth and much more.

One particularly vivid study really drove the dangers home for me. A neuropathologist examined puppies who'd lived in badly polluted Mexico City. She found the same markers in their brains that doctors use to diagnose Alzheimer's disease in humans - plaques, twisted proteins, degenerating neurons. The dog's youth made the discovery particularly disturbing.

The same research team examined the brains of children and young people who'd been killed in accidents. They found the red flags of Alzheimer's in the brains of 40% of those who'd lived in polluted places and none who'd breathe cleaner air. There are other ways to see pollution's effects on the brain, too. The researchers gave cognitive tests to kids and found that those who had lived with dirty air and also carried a gene for Alzheimer's had short-term memory loss and IQs 10 points lower than their peers.

ZOMORODI: Wow. Beth, that is just shocking. I wonder if you could talk more about the people who live in these most-polluted cities, how their everyday lives are affected.

GARDINER: There's tons of research that finds that, actually, in heavily polluted neighborhoods that parents are going to end up missing more work and kids are going to end up missing more school because, you know, if your kid has an asthma attack, you need to deal with that. And if it's serious, you need to see a doctor or maybe even go to the hospital. So on top of the health effects of that, that's an educational impact - right? - if the child has to miss school. That's an economic impact or maybe even a potential job loss if a parent has to miss too much work. So it really is not only a matter of health, but also a matter of just everyday quality of life.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. Is there a growing sense - I mean, thanks, of course, to people like you who do the work that you do - but is there a growing sense that or acknowledgement that this is happening? Like, is this something that is mainstream now?

GARDINER: I mean, I think we understand it a little more, maybe, as a public than we used to. But I would say that I still don't think that the public awareness is up there in sync with actually the impact. You know, 7 million people annually dying around the world, up to 100,000 deaths every year in the United States - you know? I mean, one thing that's interesting, actually, is that when the air gets cleaner, when we do the things to reduce pollution and clean it up, the health benefits materialize almost immediately. And that's pretty powerful.

ZOMORODI: That is pretty powerful. I guess, though, I want to know, like, what would you like to see happen next then? How do we demand better air quality? Does it mean buying more electric cars if we can afford to do so or taking more companies to court over emissions?

GARDINER: Well, it's a lot of things. So there's not one cause of air pollution, right? But what it basically comes down to and what - the thing that has gotten us as far as we have come, which is really very far already, has been science-based regulation and effective enforcement. That's what works. No individual, no smaller entity besides our government - our governments have the power to check corporate pollution - right? - to tell Volkswagen, you know, you need to make your cars comply with the law, to tell Exxon or some big oil company, you know, you need to make sure your refineries are complying with pollution limits. And here's the pollution limit that has been set in accordance with what public health demands, not what dollars and cents demand.

ZOMORODI: So we're talking about regulation and holding governments accountable. And that makes me think back to Yvette, Yvette's story which we heard earlier. Yvette actually testified before Congress in 2018 about how little their community was told about the air pollution there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARELLANO: People deserve the right to know the information necessary to make informed decisions for them and their families.

ZOMORODI: But do you think testimony like that really has an impact?

GARDINER: Well, I think it's really powerful because air pollution suffers from this problem, I think of - political problem of feeling like an abstraction.

ARELLANO: Folks tend to think and say, why don't you just move? The assumption is that we have the resources. And that's not true. But not only is there the resources, but how much does your family have invested in where you are?

GARDINER: To be able to put a face on it - for someone like Yvette to stand up or to sort of Zoom in and talk about this is what air pollution is doing to my life, this is what air pollution is doing to my community, I think that really matters a lot.

ARELLANO: I'm talking about how much of your family do you have - like your roots, your culture, your language, where you are and born and the love and the pride you have of your community, you know? I would rather fight my community and stay here knowing I'm actively doing something to change it than leave and say, OK, I'm done with that, wash my hands. And that's something I wish more people understood.

ZOMORODI: That's community activist Yvette Arellano, founder of Fenceline Watch in Houston, Texas, and Beth Gardiner, author of the book "Choked: Life And Breath In The Age Of Air Pollution." You can find her full talk at ted.com.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.