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THE AIR WE BREATHE

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When Entrusted to my Care was first published in 1966, Grand MacEwan raised conservation issues not yet discovered by the media and public. These concerns included dwindling natural resources, water conservation, air quality, industrial wastes, animal rights, soil fertility, and too rapid development. Entrusted To My Care
Copyright 1966 Western Producer Prairie Books
243 pages,
ISBN 0-88833-175-4.

Clean air, like clean water, is a basic human right, essential to both comfort and health. But millions of exhaust pipes spewing fumes, thousands of machines raising dust and hundreds of factory chimneys belching smoke are working to contaminate the good air people breathe just as too many streams have been shockingly polluted.

Even those people who show the greatest haste in draining away the resources of oil and natural gas - choosing skilfully to describe the accelerated and profitable operations as "development" rather than "exploit" - are likely to condemn loudly the pollution of stream resources, the spoiling of scenery and fouling of the atmosphere.

Air pollution problems seem likely to grow unless bold steps are taken to impose controls. To their sorrow, big cities have come to know much about "smog." And simple dustfall in New York City was found to reach the astounding total of 262,000 tons in one year - more than 700 tons per day. Such load of atmospheric impurities must be costly in maintenance operations as well as a source of human disorder.

But the big industrial cities are not alone in the problem. A warning from government offices in Ottawa said healthy air is becoming a rare commodity in most Canadian urban communities.

An annual review from the Alberta Department of Health, tabled in the legislature in February, 1962, recognized the expansion of the natural gas industry as a threat to clean air. The point arose from the necessity of removing thousands of tons of sulphur from the trillions of cubic feet of natural gas already under contract for export. While 95 percent of the sulphur impurities can be removed, there is a balance which may enter the air.

Just a few months after the report in question was tabled, distress and illness forced people from homes occupied near Pincher Creek and sulphur fumes from a natural gas plant were blamed for the trouble. Even cattle appeared to be suffering from the polluted air and government was urged to demand an immediate control.

Sulphur compounds in the atmosphere can be serious. In concentration they can destroy vegetation as was demonstrated in a central British Columbia mining community a few years ago. The allegation of crop damage on farms in the neighboring state of Washington led to heavy claims against the company and reference to an international tribunal. In the end, the company was ordered to pay damages and control the release of sulphur gases. As it happened, the order proved to be a blessing in disguise for the company because a sulphur dioxide recovery unit installed was the means of bringing the mining organization to a profitable business in commercial fertilizers.

Local governments should be able to call for the control of objectionable ingredients in smoke and industrial waste but far broader authority is needed to curb the dangerous byproducts of nuclear fuels. Increases in radiation have been sufficiently great and widespread to make for universal alarm.

The fact is that air pollution is difficult to localize. When colored snow fell in Wisconsin, the source of contamination was found to be rock dust from Arizona and New Mexico - thousands of tons of it.

And quite another aspect of pollution - far-reaching in its possible impact - is the increase in carbon dioxide of the atmosphere, presumably due to the extensive burning of fuels. The world's daily consumption of more than 20,000,000 barrels of crude oil must hold at least partial explanation of the carbon dioxide build-up.

Of course, the release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is not a strange phenomenon. Animals, including humans, take oxygen from the air they inhale, and discharge carbon dioxide. Plants, on the other hand, take carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, thus making a contribution to atmospheric balances. Indeed, the plant's use of carbon dioxide is the very basis of food production; that compound and water in the presence of green coloring matter of plant cells and sunshine give rise to sugar and the release of oxygen as a byproduct. The process is called photosynthesis and even reserves of coal and petroleum trace to that most important of all chemical reactions in nature.

But according to scientific observers, the release of carbon dioxide in this motorized age has so increased that the possibility of serious consequences accompanies the atmospheric accumulations. There is a small chance of these growing reserves becoming toxic to animal life but they could, conceivably, produce a change in climate. In theory, at least, a high concentration of carbon dioxide could lead to a higher average temperature which might melt polar icecaps and raise ocean levels to submerge much settled countryside close to continental shores.


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