The haze we see, the air we breathe

When was the last time you actually saw the azure haze that gave the Blue Ridge Mountains their name? These days, it's most likely to be visible soon after a rainstorm, when the air starts to clear and the sun comes out. But all too soon, that misty blue turns a washed-out white. That's because the air quickly gets infused with a buildup of inorganic aerosols — airborne particles emitted by vehicles, power plants, manufacturing processes and other sources.

"That's what we're breathing," says John Allen, former deputy chief of the Astrochemistry Branch at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

The white haze "is not natural" and not good for us, adds Allen, who's now retired and serving as interim chief scientist/director of atmospheric science for the Blue Ridge Sustainability Institute. Children, who breathe at a faster rate than adults and thus inhale proportionately more of the damaging particulates, are particularly affected, which may explain why asthma rates for Western North Carolina youngsters run as high as one in three.

Our region's indigenous blue haze, on the other hand, results from the way light interacts with the organic aerosols emitted by trees, plants and the natural processes that occur in these heavily forested mountains, Allen explains. The Blue Ridge has some of the highest concentrations of those organic aerosols found in North America. But unfortunately, the inorganic aerosols tend to accumulate in Asheville's valleys, where most residents live. Meanwhile, another air-pollution problem — ozone — is worse on the ridge tops.

"When people think about sustainability, they think about the environment and saving the planet," he continues. "They need to think about sustaining, or saving, themselves." Often, people don't associate air pollution with climate change, whose attendant effects — altered precipitation patterns and levels, temperature increases and coastal flooding — can directly impact human health in various ways, such as by reducing our ability to produce food or have access to safe drinking water, Allen emphasizes.

Besides aggravating asthma and other respiratory ailments, air pollution also adversely affects cardiovascular health. "Of course, air pollution isn't the only problem, but these connections are not being made," says Allen. People notice the gray-white haze but don't associate it with health problems in individual children or adults. If they were better aware of those links, he argues, area residents might be spurred to take preventive action.

To that end, the Asheville-based institute is spotlighting the topic at its next Green Monday discussion, titled "Sustaining Human Health During Climate and Environmental Change." The think tank, an initiative of the Asheville Hub Project, has been hosting monthly Monday-afternoon discussions on sustainability since 2008 (then called the Asheville Sustainability Institute, it was spearheaded by UNCA professor John Stevens). The Asheville Hub Project is an alliance of educational, business and local-government entities that seeks to promote regional economic development

At a typical Green Monday, each panelist speaks, providing an overview of the issue and details about what's being done to address it. After that, audience members (who range from business owners to college students) can ask questions, share ideas and offer solutions.

Besides Allen, this month's panel includes Jeff Schmitt of the Bent Creek Institute and Rangasayi N. Halthore, senior research scientist for the Goddard Earth Sciences and Technology Center at the University of Maryland.

"We have to find some way to address these issues," emphasizes Allen. "We can start by showing the direct effects on human health."

The next Green Monday discussion is slated for Dec. 14 from 3 to 5 p.m. in the second-floor conference room of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce on Montford Avenue. The free event is open to the public. For more information, call Steven Samuels at 279-4155 (e-mail: ssamuels@blueridgesustainability.org).

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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