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Science & Environment

Spike In Air Pollution In U.S.


There's been a spike in air pollution in the United States that alarms government scientists. Well, they used to be government scientists. We'll get to that in just a moment with Chris Frey of North Carolina State University. Dr. Frey, thanks so much for being with us.

CHRIS FREY: No. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Research out of Carnegie Mellon points to a rise in particulates in the air from 2016 to 2018. What are the particular dangers of particulates?

FREY: Oh, there are many, and it depends on the size of the particles. The ones that the Carnegie Mellon study is focusing on are what we call fine particles or PM 2.5. And these are particles that when you breathe them, they can get deep into your lungs, and they can even get to the alveoli, which are the air sacs that exchange oxygen from the air you breathe into your blood. And so these particles can cause a range of effects from respiratory illness and cardiovascular illness to premature death.

SIMON: Why the rise in particulates in the air?

FREY: One thing that we're seeing in some of the work that I and colleagues have been doing recently is that, you know, there's evidence that there's increased drought in some parts of the country that is leading, for example, to more so-called wildfires. And, you know, we're seeing wildfires right now in multiple parts of California. Those wildfires - I said so-called...

SIMON: Yeah.

FREY: ...Because they're partly a result of human activity, you know, if a transformer makes a spark in a dry area and it ignites a fire. And then the burn of the fire - how much land is burned depends on things like land use practices. So that seems to be increasing quite a bit. So the contribution of wildfires is probably one of the leading reasons why we're seeing an increase despite the decreases in particles from other sources like power plants and cars.

SIMON: I referred to people who used to be government scientists in introducing you, and I was alluding to the fact that you were part of a group of scientists who were advising the government on particulate matter. And what happened?

FREY: Yeah, a lot of things happened (laughter). But, hopefully, the short version of the story is in 2018 - October 10, 2018, by press release, we learned that current EPA administrator Wheeler had disbanded our panel in the middle of a review cycle. And we were given no reason why.

And shortly after we disbanded, about 20 of us decided, well, we agreed to provide public service and to advise the agency and the public on the health effects of particulate matter, and just because we're separated from EPA doesn't mean we can't keep doing that.

SIMON: So you and your colleagues have continued to do this work on your own in the public interest.

FREY: Yes. That's right.

SIMON: What should be done?

FREY: So to reduce the particulate matter is a pretty complicated thing because there are emission controls that can be used for large - what we call - stationary sources like power plants and industrial boilers to capture particles. But there are also gases that are emitted, and, in the atmosphere, they become particles. So sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, organic compounds - some of it goes back to things like refineries and, you know, industries that use solvents. And it touches on so many different industries and sectors of the economy that, in a sense, everybody can kind of make a contribution to reducing.

And then the other thing is there's a growing share of what we refer to as wildfires, but, you know, they're not necessarily truly wild in their origin or how they burn.

SIMON: Chris Frey of North Carolina State University, thanks so much for being with us.

FREY: Oh, you're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON KENNEDY'S "ALL A DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.