THEOSOPHY, Vol. 81, No. 9, July, 1993
(Pages 271-275; Size: 11K)



[Part 8 of a 16-part series]

Pollution in air and water affects almost everyone these days, yet Theosophical students know that being subject to race Karma means sharing many things we might not like but must accept. Once we understand the causes of any kind of pollution, we can better adapt to it and minimize our own contributions; some may even be able to work on actual cleanup projects. Keeping the environment pure is a small but necessary step in the practice of brotherhood; it represents an attitude of working in harmony with Nature at physical, astral, psychic, and mental levels.

People who live in large cities are well aware of persistent air pollution; they are less aware of what causes bad air and how we contribute to degrading this vital, shared resource. While efforts to improve air quality have partially succeeded, increased motor vehicle traffic and greater concentrations of industries and population have overwhelmed the ability of most cities to control air quality. On a sociopolitical level, the concern for human rights includes the right to peaceful surroundings, healthful food, clean air, and pure water.

Sources of Air Pollution

We might divide the chief sources of air pollution into seven distinct areas: Fuels, Asbestos, Radioactive Fallout, Toxic and Nontoxic Wastes, Outdoor Chemical Fumes (other than from wastes), Noise Pollution, and Indoor Air Pollution. Electromagnetic fields, which permeate the air, could be considered another potential source of pollution, although they do not affect air quality directly. They are similar to radiation and will be discussed in an article on that subject.

FUELS pollute when burned incompletely, a frequent occurrence. Carbon-based fuels (for example, wood, gasoline, and coal) can produce the deadly gas carbon monoxide as well as oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, which are prime ingredients of acid rain and smog. Prevailing winds often carry polluted air hundreds of miles from its source, contaminating the environment of people who had no direct role in the pollution.

ASBESTOS is a mineral fiber that was once widely used, but only in recent years has its hazardous effect on the lungs and body been understood. Many older homes and public buildings, such as schools and offices, contain asbestos in floor tiles, pipe insulation, and ceilings.

RADIOACTIVE FALLOUT follows nuclear tests and accidents releasing particles which float in the atmosphere and settle gradually on the earth. Underground nuclear testing may temporarily trap particles that in time may escape while still radioactive and end up in the water table and air.

GARBAGE AND TOXIC WASTE DUMPS emit unpleasant odors, as we are aware, but we may be unaware that more subtle toxic substances, such as methane and dioxin, may reach the air, earth, and ground water.

CHEMICAL FUMES from alcohol, drugs, petrochemicals, cleaning agents, and tobacco smoke are present indoors and outdoors. They arise directly from human use, and everyone is affected by the presence of such fumes.

NOISE is an ever-growing pollutant as we eagerly seek and produce technological efficiency and conveniences. Major noise sources are street and air traffic, construction, street cleaning, and factory machinery. Almost everyone has experienced, at times, pain and emotional stress arising from high noise levels. Air particles vibrating at intense, rapid, disharmonious rates can cause damage to the inner ear. In contrast, the pleasant sounds of Nature tend to soothe and heal. Audio and video tapes of the natural world are abundantly available to provide a balancing contrast to noise.

INDOOR POLLUTION can result from radon infiltration and the fumes of paints and other household products. Frequently flushing indoor air with fresh air and using indoor plants remove pollutants without harm to people or plants. Nature contains the healing components if we seek her help. Reducing the volume on radio and TV programs and limiting the use of noisy small appliances are simple means of controlling indoor noise.

Reducing Air Pollution -- Some Simple Steps

Air pollution could be greatly reduced if manufacturers and consumers take the following steps:

1. Select cleaner fuels plus equipment designed to insure complete combustion. Select more efficient devices for burning fuels so that less would be needed. Examples: some cleaner fuels have been introduced for heating and transportation; still cleaner fuels are scheduled to appear.

2. Use refrigerants that are less destructive to the ozone layer. New methods that do not use chemical refrigerants and are less polluting are gradually replacing older ones; developments have begun in sound-powered refrigeration and other technologies.

3. Halt the use and testing of nuclear devices, which can lead to radioactive fallout and also to destructive warfare.

4. Reduce noise generation by improved designs -- often possible at little cost. Knowledgeable consumers can become discriminating buyers.

5. Individuals can eliminate or reduce alcohol and drug use (discussed in a future article on drugs).

6. Carefully eliminate the use of asbestos and perhaps other fiber products that are or may be a health hazard.

Smog and Acid Rain

Smog (smoke + fog) is a widespread phenomenon in many cities, and an increasing health hazard. Fuels used widely in industry and in transportation are the major source of smog, which is usually a dirty yellow-brown color and quite irritating to eyes and lungs. Sunlight and ozone help to produce smog when local air is "bottled up" by a temperature inversion layer that puts a lid on its escape.

Burning dirty fuels produces air pollutants that settle directly on land and water or mix with water vapor to form nitric and sulfuric acids, which find their way into clouds and produce acid rain or snow.

Controlling industrial air pollution is costly, and offenders have used many ploys to delay the installation of control equipment in oil refineries, chemical plants, power plants, and similar sources of pollution. Midwestern power companies, among the largest generators of acid rain, for years lobbied and delayed the installation of pollution-control equipment by calling for endless, inconclusive studies. The offenders are finally being made to comply in most parts of the United States. Like the enemies of the Pandava princes in the Bhagavad-Gita, they knew they would lose but still fought on.

In 1991 a revolutionary challenge to the handling of air pollution reduction was made by members of the National Academy of Sciences (Los Angeles Times for Dec. 14, 1991, "Data Used in Smog War Challenged"). For over 20 years we have targeted the wrong ingredients of smog for maximum reduction. The nitrogen oxides in motor vehicle exhaust are much more severe in their effect than the hydrocarbons. Air pollution standards will probably be revised as a result.

Economic losses to crops and recreation areas in the northeastern American states and Canada exceeds five billion dollars annually by best estimate. The loss to health and life is probably much larger. Losses of forests, fresh-water fish, and wildlife have been catastrophic. In Europe and North Africa valuable antiquities are being eaten away by acid rain, and not enough is being done to eliminate the problem. Smog-control devices on automobiles and trucks, as required in the U.S., would be an effective method.

A recent variation of acid rain is the "black rain" produced by ruthless setting of oil fires at the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1990. We do not yet know all the consequences of this destructive action.

Asbestos: A Deadly Solid Air Pollutant

A common insidious pollutant floating on air currents is comprised of fine fibers of asbestos, discussed by Kathlyn Gay in her 1988 book, Silent Killers. Fibers may be inhaled without being aware of their presence. Because of its desirable physical properties, asbestos, until recently, was used in motor vehicle brake linings and in the cement for some water ducts. As brakes were applied, some asbestos was released into the air. As cement aged and eroded in the water ducts, asbestos was slowly released into the water, the release being more rapid when the water contained acid rain. Recommendations for replacing such ducts, when asbestos is detected in tap water, are neither questioned or resisted because of cost. The asbestos message seems to be understood, but the problems of safe elimination are not wholly resolved.

Breathing asbestos fibers scars the lungs, often causing lung cancer. The normal wear of old floor tiles exposes the fibers, which are then released to the air. Because removing tiles and other asbestos products may release fibers to the air, it is often better to leave the products in place and cover them with safe materials. It may be years before old asbestos can be properly disposed of. Air and water must be monitored meanwhile.

Some think that a similar, but less hazardous, industrial fiber is exposed fiberglass. However, refrigeration products have replaced fiberglass insulation with superior, less bulky plastic foam. There are other alternative insulating materials for homes -- for example, mineral wool and treated cellulose particles. Informed consumers can demand such alternatives and insist on constant vigilance by manufacturers for health and safety in both production and products.

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