Air Quality & Asthma [St. Louis Metropolitan Region, MO]
On good days, St. Louis’s Air Quality Index sits on the high end of green—polluted, but not dangerously high. On these days, the city’s air is often just about to slip from the green “good,” to the yellow “moderate.” As summer intensifies though, the year-round pollution caused by the coal industry, tobacco use, and radon gas starts to take its toll. The index slips from green to yellow, orange, even red as the seasons change, ranging between “unhealthy for sensitive groups” and “unhealthy” for all St. Louis citizens. High levels of pollutants emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels, as well as the city’s lax environmental regulations, denote St. Louis as having the 12th unhealthiest air in the United States, according to American Lung Association’s 2013 report.
Modern pollution has negative, but insidious, ramifications for health. Pollution is traditionally considered to have more immediate, tangible effects: drink polluted water, get sick the same day. The illness spread by air pollution, however, builds slowly. Effects often only appear after decades, and even then, there are so many pollutive forces that the origins of disease can be hard to track. What we do know: particulates from air pollution—from places prevalent as exhaust pipes of cars and coal power plants—build up in the lungs, causing inflammation, long-term lung problems, and, eventually, lethal heart problems. Ozone pollution shortens life span, and is associated with cardiovascular disease, strokes, and further respiratory problems. Cancer has also been linked to air pollution. Further, this relationship between air pollution and respiratory processes means that any source of air pollution also worsens asthma, particularly in children and senior citizens.
The effects of air pollution run rampant in the communities around St. Louis’s metropolitan area.
Professor Krummenacher of Washington University explains, “We’re a city that has a lot of industrial pollution; we’re an old industrial city, we’re a river city. We’re also a city that has big traffic problems. Those things come together here in the region to give us a pretty nasty mess.”
Asthma causes the highest frequencies of admissions to St. Louis Children’s Hospital. One quarter of the state’s childhood asthma deaths occur in St. Louis City. Lung-related health problems disproportionately plague the racial and ethnic communities that live near St. Louis highways and coal power plants. St. Louis Children’s Hospital reports that zip codes in East St. Louis have significantly higher admission than the rest of the city, showing direct correlation between health disparity and socioeconomic situation.
More than that, East St. Louis has been determined to have the worst asthma rates in the nation.
Further parallel is evident between health disparity and race: African-American children account for over 90% of childhood asthma emergency department visits in St. Louis City.
Susannah Fuchs, director of the local branch of the American Lung Association, works to improve air quality. “In my community work, we’ve seen no matter how much public education you provide, no matter how many ads you buy, people still don’t immediately see how air pollution relates to health,” she says. She describes the education process as difficult, but entirely necessary, and entirely worth the good it can do. “If you look at the last couple of decades, the levels of air pollution have definitely gone down. However, it’s still being fought for—because as it’s reducing, we’re seeing studies coming out that show the health ramifications of air pollution are much worse than we thought they were.”
In St. Louis, these ramifications might surprise you. In a lawsuit recently filed, a local advocacy group, the Sierra Club, cites almost 8,000 violations of the Clean Air Act committed by Ameren. The Clean Air Task Force is a non-profit organization that studies the effects of air pollution.
They have determined that Ameren’s Labadie coal plant, Meramec coal plant, and Rush Island coal plant (all located in proximity to St. Louis) contribute to 3,870 asthma attacks, 360 heart attacks, and 226 premature deaths every year.
Much of this illness and death relates to the violations cited by the Sierra Club, and could be mitigated if legal action were taken.
More than this, a company called Peabody Energy threatens to worsen current air quality conditions in general. Although they do not have power plants around St. Louis, they are headquartered in Missouri and have a seat on the board at large institutions like Washington University and Barnes Jewish Hospital. In this case, air pollution enabled by a Missouri company has consequences all across the nation.
Due to the efforts of organizations like the American Lung Association, over the past fourteen years of air monitoring, air quality has improved. Legislation that limits the emissions of coal-fired power plants and restricts tobacco use in public areas was passed in the form of 1970’s EPA Clean Air Act and 2011’s Indoor Clean Air Code. St. Louisans now breathe cleaner air. However, there is still work to be done: despite the overall positive trend, last year, air quality worsened. Through groups like the Sierra Club, the fight continues to actually make industry powers adhere to these legislations.
Fuchs says, “These health effects of air pollution have a huge community cost that everyone shoulders—including industry, who’s fighting the reductions. So even if people fight these changes, in the long run it turns out to benefit everybody.” And meanwhile, American Lung Association continues to educate the community through programs that teach students how to manage their health and understand environment-to-health relationships.
Despite all this, Fuchs offers hope through the future, saying, “Ideally we can continue to reduce air pollution, continue to push the edge of the envelope to make stronger restrictions and reduce pollution from all the different sources.” Through the efforts of community organizations and local attention, perhaps, indeed, this could be achieved.
In solidarity with Students Against Peabody.