An Expert’s Take On Air Quality and Pollution Risks

Smoke Stacks

I’m an environmental consultant that specializes in air quality, so people are always surprised to hear I live in one of the United States’ major centers for oil refining. It’s known as one of the most air quality-challenged regions of our country, and needless to say, I get a lot of questions around town about air quality and the risks associated with where I live.

Here’s what I know:

Exxon Mobil’s largest North American petrochemical complex is in the middle of my town. This is where plastic ingredients and the specialty chemicals for foods and personal products come from. In fact, most of the other big oil and chemical companies are also within a half hour drive.

I have kids, and the last thing I want to do is expose them to pollutants that could cause long-term harm.

We ended up about 6 miles away from the complex, primarily as a result of budget and neighborhood. We’re still close enough that we can actually see the glow of the burning flares during major plant “upsets”.

This might sound scary, but aside from actual spills and accidents, we’re probably no worse off than city folk.

Don’t believe me? Consider this:

Living within 400 feet of a busy road dramatically increases your risk for asthma. Living next to busy roads and spending a lot of time in traffic has been linked to respiratory problems, heart disease, and pregnancy complications. As it turns out, there is a much more certain risk from living in an urban area near busy traffic than living near a few chemical plants.

One of the widely recognized phenomena in environmental toxicology (what my PhD is in) is our misrepresentation of risk. For example, we worry about nuclear energy, but in the US there have been zero fatalities in 100 plants in the last 40 years. On the other hand, 40,000 people die in automobile accidents each year, and yet we think nothing of getting in the car.

My town has its problems, and our health is probably compromised over that of living in a beautiful rural location. But emissions data indicate what we’re exposed to isn’t much different than living in a city. More importantly, our actual risk is nothing like the horrible stigma the region faces.

While it’s easy to get worked up in the face of specific information on TV or the Internet, keeping a big picture in mind is important. Probably the best knowledge my degree has given me isn’t specific information about a given chemical, but a broader perspective and appreciation for what is truly worrisome.

So how do concerned air quality experts protect their families from air pollution?

We hope the wind blows in the other direction!

No matter where you live, you most likely spend about 90% of your time indoors. To improve the quality of the air you breathe, start your investigation indoors.

Here’s the good news: We control our indoor environment. Perhaps we shouldn’t worry as much about what’s happening outside and start looking inside where we (and our children) spend most of our time.

What do you think? Do you consider outdoor or indoor air pollution to be a bigger concern? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Photo Credits: Industry,; Dangerous Driving in the Rain,

Leave a Reply

Next Article5 Most Common Household Allergens and How to Avoid Them