London: The Deadly Effects of Air Pollution in Low Income Children

Living, Breathing, London

Directed by Ross Field (2019)

Film Review

With the mainstream media totally focused in carbon emissions, it’s easy to lose sight of the deadly effects of particulate pollution, ie dirty air. This mini-documentary summarizes some alarming research about its devastating health effects, especially in children.

Most of the pollution described consists of tiny carbon particles released in car exhaust. Once these enter the lungs, they are absorbed into the blood stream and cross into the brain.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2014 one out of eight people died as a direct result of air pollution. Most were children. Studies also show that high levels of air pollution also cause depression, child conduct disorder, dementia, low birth weight, abnormal fetal development, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.

In the UK, which has been in breach of EU clean air rules for two years, up to 36,000 die annually from air pollution. Families in low income neighborhoods, which are always closest to freeways and busy thoroughfares, always show the highest level of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and other air pollutants.

On a commercial note, the UK’s growing air pollution problem translates into fantastic business opportunities, creating a lucrative market for innovative safety masks, crib filters and jars of fresh air.

The filmmakers feel a better solution is to lobby the UK government to phase out fossil fuel cars by 2025 (instead of 2040) and to reduce public transport fares (instead of increasing them like the present government).

Although Britain’s electric vehicle fleet is growing fast, it still represents only 1-2% of the country’s total automobile market.


Reclaiming China’s Deserts: A Tale of Two Videos

These two videos are about China’s vast reforestation project aimed at reducing the size of the Gobi Desert. The project, which started in 1978, has planted 68 billions trees altogether and reduced the Gobi Desert by 4,800 acres. It has also forced roughly 350,000 rural farmers to relocate to urban areas. Most are unable to find work and receive no government assistance other than housing.

The first film is by France 24 – the second by China 24. Although the latter is clearly a government propaganda piece, most of the facts appear accurate. It claims China is reducing the size of its deserts by 2,000 square kilometers a year, as well as offering training to all Silk Road countries in reforestation technology.

The Chinese government is also quite proud of endangered species laws they have enacted, which make harming endangered plants, animals and marine life a crime (hopefully they have also quit locking up environmental activists). They also boast about new laws to penalize companies for polluting their waterways, as well as decreasing urban air pollution by reducing steel production by 65% and coal production by 290 million tons.

The end of the China 24 documentary boasts about lifting millions of Chinese residents out of poverty, though it fails to mention China’s skyrocketing inequality. Nor the millions of Chinese farmers who have lost their livelihood after being driven off their land – nor the millions of urban street vendors whose businesses are being bulldozed for urban renewal projects.

*The Silk Road was a centuries-old trade route connecting Asia with Europe. China has invested billions of dollars in building superhighways and high speed networks along the Silk Road route through Kazakhstan and Russia.

France 24 (2017)

China 24 (2017)


How Urban Sprawl is Destroying the Planet

Sprawling from Grace

Directed by David Edwards (2008)

Film Review

Sprawling From Grace relates how the American dream led the US to become the only country in the world in which city planning is based around the automobile. As of 2008 when the documentary was made, the US was the only country in the world without a viable public transportation system.

Americans pay an enormous price for urban sprawl, which includes decaying urban infrastructure (cities ceased to maintain bridges, tunnels, highways, roads and public water systems long before Minnesota’s I-35 bridge collapse in 2007), air pollution, the most expensive transportation system in the world, growing climate disruption (cars are responsible for 30% of carbon emissions), depletion of scarce fossil fuel resources, growing involvement in resource-based wars in the Middle East and worsening income inequality.

The filmmakers demonstrate how a minimum level of population density is essential to make public transportation cost effective (ie a train or bus route is only cost effective is you have enough users traveling from a given location at the same time). Urban development policies that allow unlimited development along freeways lead to extremely low density, as well as higher per capita costs for other services, such as water, sewer, police and fire service, schools and hospitals.

This documentary gave me a new understanding of the role of urban sprawl in increasing inequality in the US. The absence of reliable public transportation forces low income workers to buy and maintain cars to get to work – an expense which in some cases can consume 40% of their income.

I was also really impressed by the number of US mayors who in 2008 were already working to reverse urban sprawl by establishing urban growth boundaries, investing in public and active transport and engaging in urban planning that prioritizes human beings over cars.

I particularly like the emphasis on “urban villages” in which people can access services such as banks, schools, medical services and libraries without using their cars.


China’s Air Pollution Crisis

Under the Dome: Investigating China’s Smog
Chai Jing (2015)

Mandarin with English subtitles

Film Review

This intriguing documentary concerns a Chinese journalist’s investigation into China’s longstanding problem with particulate air pollution. In addition to examining underlying causes and resulting health problems, Chai Jing reports on the total powerlessness of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (EMP) to force private or state-owned industries to comply with Chinese environmental laws.

Some two dozen major Chinese cities experience dangerous levels of particulate air pollution most days of the year. According to researchers, this air pollution causes 500,000 premature deaths a year. Pollution-related cancer deaths have increased more than 400% in 30 years.

China’s Over-reliance on Fossil Fuels

All agree that China’s air pollution crisis stems from over-reliance on fossil fuels. China’s rate of fossil fuel consumption is three to four times greater (per capita) than either the US or Europe. They burn more coal per year than all other countries combined.

According to Chai Jing, coal burning power plants and steel mills and over-reliance on improperly refined diesel and gasoline are the main source of China’s particulate air pollution.

Failure to Enforce Environmental Laws

China has strict laws requiring factories and coal merchants to wash brown coal (lignite), as well as regulations requiring coal burning plants to install chimney scrubbers. Neither are rigorously enforced. Chai Jing interviews Ministry of Environmental Protection officers who have no authority to shut down or penalize or recalcitrant factories. This authority rests with municipal officials who are too fearful of backlash from factory owners and their employees to take action. They claim manufacturers can’t afford pollution controls and that shutting factories down will hurt the economy and cause workers to be laid off.

Chai Jing challenges this attitude, owing to two years of overproduction of steel, houses, commercial buildings and highways. Heavy steel manufactures who are stockpiling steel they can’t sell still receive government subsidies. The head of the Chinese Central Bank refers to them as zombie companies. Worse still, they continue to expand and drive Chinese peasants out of their homes.

The Chinese construction boom is also a major factor in fossil fuel consumption and air pollution. Owing to corruption and lack of oversight, Chinese authorities have allowed 3.4 billion new homes to be built for a population of 1.3 billion.

Vehicular Pollution

Vehicular pollution is a major problem in China, owing to the government’s failure to develop adequate public transport and widespread use of high sulfur oil from Iran. Unlike Iran, Chinese refineries don’t have the technology necessary to reduce the sulfur content of the oil they use to manufacture diesel and gasoline. According to one government official, they can’t force Sinotec (China’s state-owned oil refinery) to upgrade because it “might interrupt the fuel supply and cause instability.” Likewise there is no effort to force vehicle manufacturers to comply with laws requiring them to install emission control devices.

China Needs to Cut Emissions by Half

Chai Jing estimates China needs to cut emissions by half to reduce air pollution to levels that don’t endanger human health. Yet for some odd reason the solutions she proposes make no mention of President Xi Jinping’s recent commitment to increase China’s reliance on solar and wind technology. Instead she calls for expanded natural gas exploration and the replacement of China’s single natural gas company with multiple private companies. This, she argues, will bring about reform through “free market competition.”

Background on Chai Jing’s documentary identifies it as “self-financed.” Given the recent assault of US fracking companies on New Zealand, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if one or more of them provided financial backing for this documentary.

Other recommendations she gives – for better monitoring and public disclosure of environmental crimes and increased public involvement in local environmental legislation and increased citizen monitoring – are clearly a step forward.