Breathing is the most innate action known to humans. It is the first action you take at birth and the last action you take before death. It is critical that the air we breathe is healthy and not harmful to our bodies. Air quality is decreased when pollutants are released into the atmosphere. The four main air pollutants according to the Clean Air Act are: ground level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide. These pollutants are released into the air mainly through human activity but also through events in nature such as volcanic eruptions and wildfires. Human activities with the most effect on air quality are: the use of electricity and heating, transportation, manufacturing and construction, and agriculture.
As expected, larger urban cities have more polluted air. One of my friends told me that when she looked out her office window each morning she saw a ring of smog surrounding the downtown area of Atlanta. While this didn’t surprise me, it was still disturbing to hear. Sitting outside and getting fresh air is supposed to be good for your health and mind, but what if air quality gets so bad that that idea is no longer true? What if running outside is damaging to your health? Or taking a walk at lunch time does more harm than good? Recently I went running in Piedmont Park and noticed that there were tons of trucks idling throughout the park due to the setup for an event. All the trucks sat there emitting hundreds of pounds of pollutants into the air that I had to inhale. In Smokey Mountain National Park there are signs at lookout points asking people to not idle while they enjoy the view, but only about half the people turn their car off. These are a few of the many things I notice day-to-day.
There is no single solution to our air pollution problem. Not only do we need to increase renewable energy, but we need to decrease the energy we already use. A change in human habits and actions around energy usage would have huge impact on air quality. I recently read an article about Beijing’s effort in increase air quality before the Olympic Games. The huge city reduced their energy usage and overall emissions for a couple months before the Olympics and then during them. Residents reported a positive change in their air quality when being outside, visually and physically. If this few months of effort made a noticeable difference, imagine the positive impact a permanent effort would make? Simple changes around energy usage include: turning off the lights when you leave, adjusting your thermostat when not home, and not unplugging electronics that are not in use.
Georgia Tech is on the forefront of tackling the largest contributor to pollution and climate change, the electricity and heating of buildings. The Living Building that will soon be part of campus only uses energy that it produces. This will be the first building of its kind on campus and in the whole southeast region of the US. This building will create a high standard of sustainability on campus. Although this single building will not greatly improve air quality in Atlanta, it is a huge step in the right direction for the city and our campus.
When the Living Building at Georgia Tech opens in 2019, you can use it knowing you are having a positive sustainable impact on the environment. There are many other actions you can take every day to live a more sustainable life. For a list of suggestions, read through the Student Sustainability Guide online.