James Schauer: Addressing air pollution critical to healthy, sustainable cities

February 19, 2015

Imagine a warm, sunny day. The birds are chirping and the air appears to be clear. On a day like this, it’s hard to imagine that this seemingly healthy atmosphere may bring unhealthy consequences. But according to professor James Schauer, it can.

Schauer recently presented about the links between air pollution and human health at a Weston Roundtable event. A series of interactive lectures held throughout the semester, the Weston Roundtable promotes understanding of sustainability science, engineering and policy. The events are co-sponsored by the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Office of Sustainability.

Schauer’s research focuses on developing measurement and chemical characterization tools to better understand the origin and impacts of air pollution. That can help in the design of targeted and effective solutions, he explained.

James Schauer
James Schauer

“The last thing we want to do is fix the wrong problem,” said Schauer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and Nelson Institute faculty affiliate.

According to Schauer, the negative impacts of air pollution are abundant. In addition to its harm to human health, air pollution also impacts ecosystems, drives climate change, damages infrastructure and impairs urban development.

Schauer focuses on the human health aspect because he considers it the most immediate and detrimental impact.

“The burden of disease in the world and in this country due to air pollution is enormous,” said Schauer. “And the cost of that is enormous.”

Air pollution can cause diseases such as respiratory infections, asthma and heart disease. It can also exacerbate pre-existing conditions and complicate recovery from surgeries. For example, Schauer has studied how air pollution hinders recovery in lung transplant recipients.

He says the most common problem that can occur with a lung transplant is a condition known as bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome (BOS), which restricts airflow to the lungs and is often fatal. Multiple studies have shown a higher incidence of BOS among transplant recipients who live near roadways. Air pollution from roadways – for instance, emissions, road dust and particles from tire and brake wear – can harm health and, it is now believed, increase the chance of post-surgery complications such as BOS.

In his presentation, Schauer offered several strategies to combat air pollution that span key sectors impacting greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution emissions. He explained that efforts to address climate change need to be integrated with air pollution control strategies. He also pointed out that climate mitigation needs to go beyond carbon dioxide emissions, as other air pollutants are important drivers of climate change.   

“Just because we have a low-carbon city doesn’t mean we have low air pollution,” he said.

Schauer argued that the most important element in battling air pollution is implementing strategic targets. Reducing emissions with options such as cleaner engine technologies and cleaner fuels, in addition to moving emission sources farther from population centers and prioritizing control strategies, are all effective approaches to curbing the impacts of air pollution, he said.

For example, according to Schauer, 90 percent of transportation emissions come from only five to ten percent of vehicles on the road due to faulty control systems. This means that a strategic push to remove dirty, inefficient vehicles could reduce the majority of emissions while affecting a relatively small number of vehicles.

However, this may not mean simply directing those drivers to subways or buses – transportation systems that also emit pollution. Schauer says we need to look at the urban system as a whole to make the most strategically effective decisions.  

“We need to make sure that how we reduce air pollution is going to cause the most benefits to human health and we’re not just putting in policies to reduce air pollution for the sake of reducing air pollution,” he said.

According to Schauer, it is unlikely that we can completely eradicate air pollution, but decisions informed by the best science can help create a safer and healthier urban environment.

To hear from more speakers like Schauer, visit the Weston Roundtable each Thursday throughout the semester, or view archived presentations online

Melanie Ginsburg is a senior majoring in journalism.