Since it’s practically invisible, many people take the air they breathe—and its quality—for granted. Not Sharon Jones. She’s the executive director of an environmental justice organization here in Connecticut; she’s been involved in the struggle for cleaner air, water and skies since her college days—when Marvin Gaye released his “What’s Going on?” album in 1971.
“The album dealt with environmental issues, as well as issues relating to the war. The one song that got my attention in college was, ‘Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)’ when he talked about the polluted water and skies,” says Jones.
This spring (2016) in Connecticut, what’s going on with the environment is the historic clearance for a plan to close the last operating coal-fired power plant in the state—the Bridgeport Harbor Station—and transition it to a natural gas facility. Along with the closure came an agreement to ensure that the change is beneficial to the Bridgeport community. On that particular agreement is a signature from Jones’ organization, the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice (CCEJ).
“I do believe that this is the beginning of a just transition for the community,” says Jones.
It’s also a move toward cleaner air for Connecticut. The importance of air quality for our heart and lungs is well-known. But given the surprising fact that clean air is also implicated in proper brain functioning, the closure of the coal-fired plant is something all Connecticut residents should be excited about.
The 47-year-old Bridgeport Harbor Station has been negatively impacting community health in Connecticut for decades. Jones claims that because of the pollution, generations of families have been harmed by having the plant in Bridgeport.
“You need to understand the type of pollution that comes out of power plants,” she explains. “It’s black coal; it’s particulate matter, which is devastating to one’s cardiovascular system and it produces lung disease, asthma and heart disease.” Countless reports from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other health and environmental organizations support Jones’ claims.
But air quality is not just about the acute impacts on the cardiovascular system. Newer understanding suggests that air actually has wider affects on overall health.
Air and Health
Holistic health paradigms, including naturopathic medicine, weight the importance of clean air to health more heavily than conventional medical paradigms may. It may be useful to think of the impact of air as even more widespread than a single health condition or emergency room visit; air is about the ability of the body to function healthfully every day.
Gary Gruber is a naturopathic physician and a professor at the University of Bridgeport with a specialty in environmental medicine. Talking about the topic of air quality and health, he underlines the importance of stress in determining the health of a patient and the potential dangers of air pollution.
Gruber describes a useful concept for understanding the importance of air that’s integral to his practice: total load. “Everything contributes to the total load,” he explains. “The [total] load is really all of the different stressors that are affecting our physical health.” Total load can be viewed as a factory system in the body. Gruber uses a well-known scene from an episode of I Love Lucy, to make his point. In the episode, Lucy and Ethel are wrapping chocolates traveling to them on a factory conveyor belt. But when production on the line is suddenly sped up, the pair frantically try, and fail, to wrap the chocolates speeding by too fast. They ultimately begin stuffing chocolates into their mouths, hats, bras, and anywhere else they can find.
It’s a humorous example, but it’s also good insight into how stress and toxins in the air affect the body. If the body can’t handle the total load of stressors coming down the “conveyor belt”—like Lucy—the whole system starts to go a little haywire. The problems may manifest in a number of ways.
Based on this understanding, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that, for Bridgeport residents and their neighbors in surrounding regions, living in the shadow of the plant has kept body systems out of balance for decades—this is something Jones has seen with her own eyes.
“I talk to people who are really on the fence line of these polluted facilities and it saddens me to see how they live. It saddens me to see the illnesses that they have. And how these illnesses affect social and economic conditions, which they tend to live with for the rest of their lives,” Jones says.
For example, she makes a point of noting how an illness such as asthma has ramifications far beyond a single attack. A late-night emergency room visit can keep a student, and their siblings, out of school the next day or keep mom and dad from getting to work on time; these all have a ripple effect on people’s lives.
“Asthma has social, political and economic implications,” says Jones. And so, it seems, does air.
When looking at air quality and the Bridgeport Harbor Station from the perspective of stress, is it really possible to peg poor health in urban areas directly on air quality in the surrounding environment, or is it another stressor that’s the real culprit?
According to Jones, that’s not really the point. “If a person is being attacked by multiple stressors, you ask yourself, well which one can I choose? Which one is the one that is really affecting me? The answer is all of them. But you need to attack each one individually, and eliminate the greatest first and move down the list.”
“Environmental justice is more than just pollution. We’re dealing with poverty; we’re dealing with economics; we’re dealing with education; we’re dealing with place: where you live, how you live,” says Jones.
Within the context of his field, it seems Gruber is dealing with much of the same. “Traditionally environmental medicine has always been about man-made toxins and environmental allergens… I turn it upside down, in a way, because I see environmental medicine as all of these different influences. It’s how your cells react to [their] environment.”
That environment includes stressors like poverty, poor educational systems and, of course, air quality.
But the impacts of air run even deeper than health, economics and social systems; they affect the self, right at the source. Research appears to shows that air may have an effect on, not just our health, but the way we think. In a recent study from Harvard University in collaboration with other leading research institutions, scientists showed that improving indoor air quality significantly increased cognitive function in office workers.
On the flip-side of that study, a less encouraging fact, according to Gruber, is that poor air can decrease cognitive function and even cause damage to brain cells.
“If a person is exposed to environmental toxins, that creates a chronic stress in their body. Whenever there’s chronic stress, it changes the heart rate variability, and the heart rate variability affects cognition,” he says.
Two powerful heart hormones—ANF and ICA—are responsible for this effect on cognition. Secreted when the body is under stress, these hormones essentially tell the brain to turn its processing power toward survival, not higher cognitive functions like formal reasoning or problem-solving. This can lead to things like brain fog and fuzzy thinking. If chronic stress is a way of life—and an individual’s detoxification system isn’t working correctly—in some individuals the toxic load can lead to inflammation, which causes brain cell damage.
“It’s like any other inflammation in the body,” says Gruber.
Add that to the acute effects described by Sharon Jones and the Bridgeport Harbor Station may end up leaving more than just nasty health conditions—like asthma and heart disease—as a legacy. The station may have a lasting impact on the way residents of the city and surrounding communities feel and think.
With the eventual closing of the facility secured, the larger question becomes, what can Connecticut residents do to limit their exposure to all harmful toxins in the air, not just those from power plants?
Gruber has an answer. According to him, filtration and location are the most important factors to keep in mind when talking about staying safe from air toxins.
“It’s very difficult if you live in an area of the country like we live in, here in Southwest Connecticut, to really escape the air toxins,” he explains.
That’s because on top of the coal plant nestled in Fairfield County, Connecticut itself is subject to wind and weather patterns that shunt air and toxins from other areas of the country directly to the tri-state area.
“On a really clear day, drive up to Holyoke, there’s a plateau up there. Turn around and look towards the horizon, towards Springfield and Connecticut. What you will see is not blue sky. You will see a lot of brown and yellow sky. And that’s what is covering this area of Connecticut that we live in,” Gruber says.
That brown and yellow sky is due to pollution picked up by air currents in the South and Midwest, and deposited in Connecticut. Given the cross-regional pollution, the best advice Gruber has is to filter indoor air.
“You want to try to sleep in an environment that can try to remove as much of that stuff as possible,” he says. “If you have some kind of inflammation in your respiratory system, you don’t want to be burning wood, for example. You want to have a filtration system. You want to make sure that your oil burner is well-vented, so that the fumes from that are not diffusing into your home. These are just a few things that you can do in your home.”
In addition, the doctor provided a rule-of-thumb that he gives as advice to all his patients. “If you smell something, you have absorbed it,” Gruber says. And, like Lucille Ball wrapping chocolates, if we’ve absorbed too many toxins, our body essentially begins to stuff them all over the place in the cells and tissues for later processing.
Working for Wholeness
For Bridgeport residents who’ve spent their lives near the plant, it spells decades of toxins from black coal combustion stored in the body, causing all kinds of stress reactions from asthma to heart disease to inability to concentrate. And, for some residents in the area, a good filtration system indoors just isn’t to be found.
“There’s indoor air quality that’s poor as well as outdoor air quality,” says Jones.
But, at the end of the day, the picture isn’t all bleak. The Bridgeport Harbor Station is scheduled for closure by 2021. Jones and the CCEJ were successful in giving that glimmer of hope to the community—in working as healers in a surprising field.
“My agenda is to make people whole—make people well,” says Jones. As a naturopath, Gruber hopes to do the same thing. And as the Harbor Station begins to approach the end of its life in Bridgeport, Gruber and Jones can probably both heave a big sigh of relief.