When I first learned about Persephone in grade school, I loved how the Greek myth explained the reason for the seasons. Stolen away by Hades, god of the underworld, (we weren’t told it was rape), Persephone was allowed to return to earth for a period of time each year. She would bring warmth and vegetation with her, and was synonymous with spring.
These days, I have no idea where Persephone is or what she’s up to. She is probably as concerned as I am about the environment and climate issues. After a very cold New York winter, she made a brief appearance — allowing some trees to bud — and then disappeared when the mercury dropped. Soon after that, temperatures hit the 90s. On the streets of Manhattan, where the “canyons of steel” can be unforgiving, I lamented the disappearance of the intermediate months that used to give delightful weather before the start of summer.
On those unbearably hot days, people were having trouble breathing. They talked about it in elevators, on buses, and in the subways. My healthy 16-year-old got home from his school commute and told me he felt sick. He was nauseous and light headed. After I made sure he was hydrated, I had him take a cool shower.
I checked online to see what the air quality was. My initial search brought up stats for Ohio and Maryland. They both had unhealthy levels of ozone air pollution — better known as smog. Over the holiday weekend, Ohio had reached an “orange alert,” the middle tier of six categories that determines how safe the air quality is.
Next I landed on a story about the first days of June in Mumbai, India. That focused on the level of Respiratory Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM). Translated, that means the “invisible particles” that result from diesel vehicle emissions and construction activity. I could just imagine the numbers for the car-clogged streets of Gotham.
Eventually, I got on to the page for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which gives a daily Air Quality Index (AQI). It was over 100, “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”
Ground level ozone is the principal component of smog. What does it come from? It’s the result of a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCS,) that gets activated by heat and sunlight. Urban areas are affected the most. In calculating the ten states most likely to experience the greatest negative health impact, New York got a number three ranking.
The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report this June, Climate Change and Your Health: Rising Temperatures Worsening Ozone Pollution. With the assertion that ozone pollution could cost Americans more than $5 billion in 2020, it deserves to get national attention.
No study is complete without connecting the dots between health care costs and smog, which causes respiratory illness, particularly for the youngest and oldest among us. A co-author of the study, UCS Climate scientist Todd Sanford, reiterated how “cutting fossil fuel emissions would protect public health, the environment, and the economy.” At the end of the analysis, the question is raised, “Where do we go from here?”
The insights have been put forth before. They’re basic and simple, and need the participation of the country’s citizens and industries — and to be reflected in public policies. The bottom line underscores the need to go directly to creatively developing renewable energy sources such as “wind, solar and geothermal to generate electricity.” Reevaluating how our cars are run is another key consideration.
We need to heed the chorus of voices explaining the science. If we are guilty of hubris, emanating from the concept that we are smart enough to avert disaster and everything will turn out okay, we should reconsider. I would hate to see the analogies move from a Greek myth to a Greek tragedy.