Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive.
-- Sir Walter Scott
Things can get tangled up rapidly when trying to draw parallels between the environmental condition of the planet and the health condition of its inhabitants. In 2020, the United States' environmental, medical, political and social spheres have been sideswiping and crashing into each other, creating parallels and crossovers galore.
Probably most obvious is the relationship between the earth's air and the necessity of respiration for critters to live. Breathing is how we take in oxygen and respiration is the process of our blood delivering it to our body's cells. This circulation inside us makes air quality a very personal issue.
Most people have finally come to accept that smoking damages and weakens the lungs and affects overall health. Reluctantly, we seem to understand that dirty air from vehicle emissions, industries, incinerators, power plants, etc., also can't be good for us, and we've made compromised efforts to address those sources, sort of. Further from the public's daily consciousness and activism level is our air's connection to diseases like asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease, COPD, tuberculosis and lung cancer. And even more remotely considered is how environmental degradation impacts fetal development, including genetic changes that can be passed forward through generations.
So it is with no small amount of horror that scientists and environmentalists see the relationship of air pollution to the new/novel kid on the block, the virus covid-19. Yaron Ogen, a researcher at Martin Luther University in Germany says, "Poisoning our environment means poisoning our own body, and when it experiences chronic respiratory stress, its ability to defend itself from infections is limited." The research examined levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), mostly emitted in vehicle exhausts, and compared heavily polluted regions in Italy and Spain with viral infection rates. It was found that 78% of the 4,443 deaths were in regions with the worst combination of NO2 levels and poor airflow conditions.
The public response of some leaders in our country to the viral outbreak has been to "ignore it and it'll go away." That willing blindness has also paralleled their approach to climate change, the global plague upon the air we breathe and the water we drink. But rest assured the movers and shakers in government have been very busy, just not with the best interest of your health in mind. In the May 20 New York Times article, "The Trump Administration is Reversing 100 Environmental Rules," the first 27 items on this list are of rollbacks and reversals of regulations designed for air quality.
These reversals range from weakening fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards, to withdrawing stricter limits on mercury emissions, to canceling the reporting of methane emissions (often related to fracking), to loosening rules limiting toxic emissions by big industrial polluters. The list goes on and on and reads like a dream catalogue of polluter porn compiled especially for those who ingratiate politicians with campaign donations to do their bidding.
Environmental organizations beg donations for fighting these slash-and-burn attacks on protections that have taken decades to win, lawsuits that waste precious resources that could be put to so many other needs. Instead, time and money are spent in court to protect citizens from their own government.
In his four years of signing, with sweeping theatrical flourish, executive orders and rule changes by the dozens, Mr. Trump, as the puppet of his party's plundering predators, has busily destroyed health safeguards. What has been lost will take time to replace, unfortunately time we don't have. In the cases of endangered species, natural area downsizings, poisoned water and habitat losses, for example, much of what is lost is gone forever.
Instead of containing in every way possible this lethal virus, which attacks us when we breathe contaminated air, the leadership of our country has given us denials, missteps, lies, arrogance, ego and attitude. The continuing insatiable dismantling of all things environmentally protective has aided this virus in ravaging hundreds of thousands of lives.
"I can't breathe," will symbolize great social upheaval of this time in our lives as we go forward trying to write a better history for our country. Ironically the phrase might also come to be representative of what this disease has taken from us. We need to do better by each other, by our planet, and we need leaders with the intelligence and backbone to make us better.
We need to breathe.
Fran Alexander is a Fayetteville resident with a longstanding interest in the environment and an opinion on almost anything else. Email her at [email protected]