Smoggy ozone found over tropical paradise islands
he "unthinkable" appears to be hap pening. According to a Reuters re port, "Heavy smog found in air above south sea paradises" (K. Murray, 4/1/98), "Throat-burning smog that afflicts huge cities like Los Angeles and Mexico City is also contaminating the air above pristine South Sea islands like Fiji and Tahiti."
The Reuters report is based upon the work of F. Sherwood Rowland, a Nobel Prize-winning* expert in atmospheric chemistry at the University of California, and his colleague, Donald Blake. Presenting their findings at national meetings of the American Chemical Society in Dallas, they said the ozone levels represented "a major atmospheric problem for the 21st century."
Air quality at 8,000 feet and higher above the South Pacific was discovered to have ozone levels that would "trigger a first-stage smog alert" in some of the world's more congested, polluted cities."
The Galapagos Islands near Ecuador were also found to have this high level of smog in the air above the surface. The scientists attributed the South Sea air pollution to the forest and brushland fires in Africa, Indonesia, South America and Australia. They say it "is carried thousands of miles by winds." Omitted from this report and others is mention of the terrible smoke coming from the burning peat in Indonesia. A tremendous amount of carbon dioxide is being put into the atmosphere from the burning peat and coal fires, covering about one million hectares. The peat fires are a result of national policy in Indonesia coupled with dry conditions from the 1997-1998 El Niño.
The ozone measured in Professor Rowland's study is high enough above the earth's surface that people in the South Sea islands are likely untroubled by it. However, the report says that the ozone is "a dramatic sign of escalating ozone levels worldwide." Rowland is quoted as saying: "We are talking about (ozone count) numbers on a regular basis that are approaching levels that are considered harmful on an occasional basis."
The findings obtained were a result of two research planes flying about 500 miles north of Fiji last year, at an altitude of about 5 miles. They "flew through a plume of smog with ozone readings of 131 parts per billion above the smog alert level in Los Angeles or Mexico."
The chemicals found in the air over the tropical paradises were the "essentially" the same as those affecting major cities, Rowland said. However, overlooked in the Reuters article is the fact that at ground level in major cities there are also thousands of new, manufactured chemicals in the air that are not found in forest combustion.
Rowland said, "You need hydrocarbons, nitrogen and sunlight. In the tropics, burning forests give off hydrocarbons and the high temperatures create nitrogen oxides, and there is plenty of sunlight." According to him, worldwide ozone levels are rising steadily. He believes that unless something happens to change this trend, the chemical effects "will show up in the biology of the people that have to live in it."
The Reuters article said the effects of high smog levels are impaired lung functions that cause breathing difficulties, and increased risk of asthma attacks. It also said that smog irritates the eyes, nose and throats of people exposed to it. According to Rowland, smog causes rubber bands to lose their elasticity and ponders what effects it has on lungs.
The field work was done under the sponsorship of NASA in the Atlantic in 1992 and in the Pacific in 1996. More tests are scheduled for next year in different areas of the Pacific.
*Rowland shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Mario Molina of MIT for their research into the effects of chlorofluorocarbons on stratospheric ozone, which forms a protective shield against biologically harmful ultraviolet light from the sun in the upper atmosphere.
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