Smog, Pollution, and Improving the Chicago Region’s Air Quality

by Melanie Blume for SUST 240

Smog over Chicago IL (photo: Storm Williams, ENN)

Smog over Chicago IL (photo: Storm Williams, ENS)

Ever wondered where that smog we see hanging over the city in the morning actually comes from? And what happens when we breathe it in? The collective cloud is referred to as particle pollution. It’s a gaseous mix of chemicals and minute debris. The truth isn’t always pretty, but it’s got very real health consequences for people who live in smog-polluted areas: cancers, reproductive problems, asthma, and heart disease.

The American Lung Association has a program that reveals air quality reports around the United States called State of the Air. In 2014, State of the Air gave Chicago a failing grade for particle pollution as well as unsafe ozone levels. Another resource for the public is scorecard.org, which gives information based on zip codes of pollution sources and levels. It includes air and water pollution and even names the companies who pollute the most in that area.

Scorecard.org uses data complied by the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). Companies by law are required to submit their chemical emissions to the TRI. In Cook County, the Corn Products Argo Plant in Bedford Park takes the title for the heaviest toxic air releases. They reported air releases of hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, N-hexane, hydrofluoric acid, lead compounds, mercury compounds, and ammonia adding up to 1,123,016 lbs. of pollutants.

While this list of chemicals doesn’t mean much to the average nonchemist, hydrochloric acid is ranked as one of the most hazardous compounds (worst 10%) to human health and the overall ecosystem (scorecard.org).

Despite being overlooked because it’s not entirely visible, air pollution has serious consequences. The American Lung Association reports that air pollution is linked to “increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer and asthma attacks and can interfere with the growth and work of the lungs.” Cancer or asthma from extended exposure from general air quality is impossible to prove in terms of pinpoint the exact cause, but we’ve seen a clear enough trend to realize what happens when we breathe in toxic chemicals and particulates.

Nationally, the EPA sets the standards and uses the TRI data to make feasible benchmarks for industries to comply with. Change in air quality is assessed by the EPA and revisited every five years. The EPA is responsible for setting national air quality standards under the Clean Air Act that was enacted to improve air quality and protect public health “with an adequate margin of safety.”

On a much more local level, Chicago has its own action plan. As a response to our failing air quality grade in Chicago, solutions are being proposed. Mayor Emanuel wants clear data on air quality and sources to improve the efficacy of any changes he can implement. Amina Elahi, a reporter with the Chicago Tribune‘s Blue Sky Innovation, wrote about Chicago’s plan to implement a high tech data collection system that will improve public health and safety.

The project is called Array of Things and will start rolling out at the end of this year. The goal is use technology to make better decisions in terms of Chicago’s overall sustainability. Devices mounted on lampposts will monitor air pollution and a free downloadable app will show pedestrians which route avoids the most air pollution to their destination. This database will remotely collect a plethora of information that will provide the city with solid data that’s necessary in making crucial decisions affecting public health.

Even if this program doesn’t turn out to be as successful as one might hope, it is nonetheless progress in the right direction. Public awareness about air pollution, its consequences, and its potential solutions is a critical component to changing our the quality of our environment for the better.

Each week during the Fall 2014 semester, students in Prof. Mike Bryson’s SUST 240 Waste online class at Roosevelt University will contribute blog posts on urban and suburban sustainability issues to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

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About Suburban Sustainability

Founder and editor of the Schaumburg's Sustainability Future social media project (est. Earth Day, 2011)
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