Beneath The Unfriendly Skies

The next time you tighten your safety belt en route to see your in-laws, you might want to hold your breath. The National Geographic recently reported that you’re ten times more likely to die from pollution caused by airplanes than you are to die in an actual airplane crash. According to the article, airplane exhaust kills 10,000 people per year, compared with airplane crashes, which kill an estimated 1,000 people. While I’m sure these statistics are comforting to those of us with the good fortune to live safe breathing distance from an airport, as a mom of two living a few miles from a major airport, in a major metropolitan area, I find them deeply disturbing.

And it’s that deep disturbance that is the issue here. The culprit is the particulate matter found in the fuel exhaust—super small particles of pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which can become trapped deep in the lungs when inhaled, and could, potentially, enter the bloodstream and contribute to cancer and a host of other health problems.

Eight years ago, when my husband and I were looking for a home, I don’t recall “proximity to deadly carcinogens” on our list of house-hunting criteria. Maybe it should have been.

After having lost out on our 10th straight bid to a buyer willing to pay $100K over the asking price for a house that needed a new roof, a new foundation, and which was located across the street from a known crack house, we were feeling a bit dejected. You see, our landlord was selling our rental home and we had less than two months to find a new place to live, so we were feeling a tad desperate.

That’s when our Realtor, Richard, suggested we consider expanding our home search beyond the borders of Berkeley and Oakland to include the nearby town of Alameda. As it would happen, Alameda is a quaint little island town “off the coast of Oakland”. Its charms are manifold: tree-lined streets, plentiful parking, and tons of open space, city views — not to mention Alameda’s near-perfect commuting distance from San Francisco by bus, train, or ferry. Distance to the nearest regional railway station is 1 mile. The ferry terminal is 15-minutes away by bike. But perhaps most comforting of all was its proximity to the Oakland Airport: from driveway to drop-off in just under 10 minutes. Although, sometimes location isn’t always key.

You know how you can start to see the positive effects of changing your diet and starting an exercise program in a relatively short amount of time? Well, it turns out that the same holds true for negative impacts to your health. In a related article, also published in National Geographic, exposure to the particulate matter mentioned earlier can change your DNA in just three days. DNA, as in, your genes: coded to express your height, eye color, or your likelihood of being diagnosed with a particular disease. While I’m all for personal transformation, I think changing the bits that actually make you, well, you is taking things a bit too far.

Because my home is situated at the nexus of multiple modes of transportation, I am very interested in finding out what this swirling mass of transit adds to the air in the air where I live. Maybe knowing will help me breathe a little easier. But how can I find out?

My first stop was the desk of Caroline Cox at the Center for Environmental Health. I figure if she doesn’t know the answer, I must be asking the wrong question. Caroline directed me to the EPA’s AirNow website, where I could get a read, in real-time, on the quality of the air in my town.

According to the site, today’s a “moderate” air quality day, which means that while the quality of the air meets “acceptable standards” it does contain some pollution that could pose a health risk to some who are more vulnerable to pollutants in the air, such as the very young, the very old, or those with certain sensitivities.

So, at least for today, I guess it’s safe to exhale. And inhale again. Check out the AirNow site to see what’s up in the air where you live, then read the EPA’s Guide to Air Quality and Your Health for help with interpreting that data.

If you want a more hands-on approach to testing the quality of the air around you, you could try sampling the air yourself. After watching this  video from Hilton Kelly of the Community In-Power Development Association, I decided to try out testing the quality of the air around my home using a humble bucket kit. As luck would have it, I’ll have a chance to meet Hilton this weekend in downtown Oakland at an event for Global Community Monitor. When my results are in, I’ll post them here.

Concerned about what might be up there in your air? Check out the video, get your bucket kit and let us know what you find.