Friday, May 1, 2009


A good day looking north from the top of Deem Hills

On the long list of things we take for granted that I've mused upon in this blog, including water, waste management services, and food supply, I probably think more about breathing than anything. On the two mornings a week that I hike to the top of Thunderbird Mountain with my faithful hiking partner, Caroline, we are able to take a 360 degree survey of our air shed at 6:00 a.m.

Some mornings, especially after a light rain coupled with wind, the view to the south is blessedly clear enough to see the silhouettes of downtown Phoenix's skyscrapers. All around, layers upon layers of desert hills circle the city. Early morning light gilds the green urban landscape. I feel good about taking a deep breath. Other mornings, we gaze out in horror at the brown smog that has settled in the valley, obscuring silhouettes, dimming distant hills and casting a ghastly haze over everything. What we see is what we are breathing, and this cannot be escaped.

A scary day looking north from the top of South Mountain

According to a recent study published by the American Lung Association in their State of the Air Report (, Phoenix, Arizona is the 9th most polluted city in the U.S., with over 100 days a year declared "unhealthy" to breathe. This is mostly from ozone, the low level smog that is created from burning fossil fuels, although many locals want to believe it is "just dust." Ground level ozone is produced when nitrous oxides combine with atmospheric oxygen in the presence of sunlight. Cars are the largest emitters of the nitrous oxides, which is why large urban areas tend to have the highest levels of this type of ozone.

I experienced the toxic effects of ozone this winter when I had a chronic cough that was not associated with any infection. My doctor prescribed an inhaler loaded with steroids to reduce the inflammation, and the condition abated within a month. But I can't help wondering what long-term effects are going on deep in my lungs. I have never smoked cigarettes, but that may not matter. Just breathing in Phoenix may create similar effects!

What can be done? This is another one of those "Tragedy of the Commons" issues that requires a cooperative effort to solve. Less driving. More walking and biking. More fuel efficient vehicles. The cumulative effects of each of our miniscule efforts does matter. So now that I'm finished writing this, I will ride my bike, rather than drive, to the grocery store to buy the organic milk and free range eggs that I need to make dinner tonight!

1 comment:

Amber said...

It really is so sad. And kind of amazing that it's so easy to ignore a problem that literally blankets the city. I developed asthma while living in Phoenix and moving has improved my symptoms a lot. Even though Austin is the "allergy capital of the U.S." my breathing is much improved.