Dear EarthTalk: Is air quality in the United States improving or getting worse? Is it cleaner in some parts of the country than in others? -- K. Gould, Sherman Oaks, CA
Air quality across the United States has improved dramatically since 1970 when Congress passed the Clean Air Act in response to growing pollution problems and fouled air from coast to coast. According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), levels of all major air pollution contaminants (ozone, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and lead) are down significantly since 1970; carbon monoxide levels alone dropped by more than 70 percent.
And that’s good news for everyone. A 2009 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that efforts to reduce fine particle pollution from automobiles, diesel engines, steel mills and coal-fired power plants have added between four and eight months to the average American’s life expectancy in recent years. Overall, Americans are living some two and three-quarter years longer than during the 1980s. Changes in smoking habits and improved socioeconomic conditions are the biggest reasons why, but cleaner air is also a big factor. “It’s stunning that the air pollution effect seems to be as robust as it is,” Arden Pope, the Brigham Young University epidemiologist who led the study, told reporters.
|Air quality across the United States
has improved dramatically since
1970 when Congress passed the
Clean Air Act. Nonetheless, some
175 million Americans - 58 percent
of the population - still live in places
where pollution levels can cause
breathing difficulties or worse.
Credit: Comstock, courtesy
Pope and his team analyzed life expectancy, economic, demographic and pollution data from 51 metropolitan areas, and found that when fine-particle air pollution dropped by 10 micrograms per cubic meter, life expectancy rose by 31 weeks—such as in Akron, Ohio and Philadelphia. Where fine particle counts dropped even more—by 13 to 14 micrograms, such as in New York City, Buffalo and Pittsburgh—people lived some 43 weeks longer on average.
But according to the American Lung Association (ALA), even though air quality around the country is improving overall, some 175 million Americans—58 percent of the population—still live in places where pollution levels can cause breathing difficulties or worse. The group’s “State of the Air: 2010” report looks at levels of ozone and particle pollution found in monitoring sites across the United States in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and compares them to previous periods.
The biggest improvement was found in year-round (annual) particulate levels, which the ALA attributes to recent efforts to clean up major industrial air pollution sources. “However, the continuing problem demonstrates that more remains to be done, especially in cleaning up coal-fired power plants and existing diesel engines.” the group reports. ALA also found, by overlaying census data with pollution maps, that Americans with the lowest incomes face higher risks of harm from air pollution, underscoring what environmental justice advocates have been saying for years.
As for how to protect ourselves from still problematic air pollution, ALA recommends checking air quality forecasts and avoiding exercising or working outdoors when unhealthy air is present. The federal government’s AirNow website provides daily air quality updates for more than 300 cities across the U.S., as well as links to more detailed state and local air quality web sites. And if air quality problems in your area continue to be bothersome, consider picking up and moving. Fargo, North Dakota or Lincoln, Nebraska, anyone? According to ALA’s “State of the Air: 2010” report, these two cities rank among the cleanest in all of the air pollution categories studied.
Dear EarthTalk: My daughter loves those press-on tattoos, and they’re frequently given out at birthday parties and other events. But I’ve noticed the labels say they’re only for ages three and up. Are they safe? If not, are there alternatives? -- Debra Jones, Lansing, MI
|The U.S. Food and Drug Administration
in the recent past issued import blocks
on temporary tattoos that do not comply
with federal labeling regulations. Buyer
beware: Make sure the ones you get
clearly list their ingredients on the pack-
aging. Credit: Digital Vision, courtesy
For the most part, so-called temporary tattoos are safe for kids and grown-ups alike, even if they do contain a long list of scary sounding ingredients including resins, polymers, varnishes and dyes. But if they are sold legitimately in the U.S., their ingredients have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FSA) as cosmetics, meaning the agency has found them to be safe for “direct dermal contact.” The FDA has received reports of minor skin irritation including redness and swelling, but such cases have been deemed “child specific” and were not widespread enough to warrant general warnings to the public.
Those who are concerned anyway but still want a temporary tattoo might consider an airbrush tattoo—they are sprayed on over a stencil using FDA-approved cosmetic inks. The rub on these in the past was that they didn’t last very long, but new varieties are reported to last two weeks, and can be easily removed prior to that with isopropyl alcohol, just like their “press-on” cousins.
Another alternative way to go is henna-based tattoos, which typically do not contain any additives whatsoever. Henna is a flowering plant used since the days of our earliest civilizations to dye skin, fingernails, hair, leather, and wool—and it makes for a relatively natural—although monotone—temporary tattoo.
But the FDA warns consumers to steer clear of any temporary tattoos labeled as “black henna” or “pre-mixed henna,” as these have been known to contain potentially harmful adulterants including silver nitrate, carmine, pyrogallol, disperse orange dye and chromium. Researchers have linked such ingredients to a range of health problems including allergic reactions, chronic inflammatory reactions, and late-onset allergic reactions to related clothing and hairdressing dyes. Neither black henna nor pre-mixed henna are approved for cosmetic use by the FDA and should be avoided even if they are for sale in a reputable store.
Something else to watch out for are the micro-injection machines used by some professional temporary tattoo artists such as might be hired for a corporate event or a festival While getting a microinjection-based temporary tattoo may not hurt, it does puncture the skin. The United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive recently issued a warning that improperly cleaned machines could facilitate the spread of infectious diseases including HIV and hepatitis. As a result, several types of micro-injection machines with internal parts that could carry contamination from one customer to another have been banned there. Such machines aren’t as popular in the U.S., but if you aren’t sure, it’s best to avoid it. The more familiar press-on temporary tattoos are a safer bet regardless.
Just in case you’re worried that the FDA isn’t checking, the agency has in the recent past issued import blocks on temporary tattoos that do not comply with federal labeling regulations; buyers beware that the ones you get should clearly list their ingredients on the packaging per FDA requirements.