A couple of years ago, Linda Jones went out on one of her regular walks along the roads of rural Anderson County, not far from the Bull Run power plant, which burns more than 2 million tons of coal a year.
It was a hot, sunny day, and she felt good as she started her walk. She noticed a farmer running his tractor, which coughed small puffs of black exhaust into the air. Suddenly, she was gasping for air.
It struck fast, like her asthma attacks always do. "I got a mile from my car and had an attack and did not know if I was going to make it back to my car," Jones remembers. "It's really frightening—people can die within 45 minutes of having an asthma attack. It's like being strangled. Or a feeling of suffocation. You can't get enough air in."
While most Americans may not worry much about the air they breathe, the more than 17 million Americans suffering from asthma don't have a choice
That asthma can kill was recently made painfully clear by the death of local blues singer Sara Jordan. The 40-year-old woman died May 22 from cardiac arrest, which was brought on by an asthma attack.
Asthma attacks can be brought on by a number of things, including natural particles like pollen. But air pollution further aggravates this and other lung ailments.
"It seems people are more upset about air in the park than they are about their own human health," says Stephen Smith, of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "I guess unless you're asthmatic or have poor health, it's having an effect on you, but not a noticeable one."
"The thing that's so hard about air pollution is it's hidden," Jones says. "You can't necessarily tell the damage is being done. But it is occurring and your awareness tends to lag behind. With an allergic reaction, you walk out and immediately start to sneeze. You have a more immediate perception you've got to get away. But with air pollution, it can happen in a more subtle way. You're getting an increasing amount of toxins in your lungs. But you don't react so much to something that happens gradually."
However, there are plenty of people in the region who are susceptible to air pollution. The American Lung Association estimates there are 355 people with lung cancer in the Knoxville region, plus 4,800 with emphysema and 13,300 with chronic bronchitis. Some 10,000 adults and 4,400 children have asthma. Recent studies have also found that exposure to ozone can cause asthma in children.
Although air pollution has clearly made an impact on human health in East Tennessee, it doesn't seem to have hit critical mass here.
Among utilities, the Tennessee Valley Authority is the nation's second largest emitter of nitrogen oxides and third largest emitter of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most polluted national park in the country.
Yet, the actions needed to clean up the air are slow in coming.
Raymond De Young, an environmental psychologist at the University of Michigan, says that awareness of problems alone doesn't necessarily lead to change in behavior.
"There's a lot of things competing for people's attention and the environment is just one of them," De Young says. "If they're making a decision with regard to buying a product that has certain air-pollution consequences, if they're buying a car for instance, they may think about emissions, if there's nothing else competing."
But things like price and need might take precedence in the decision, he says.
"The environment is a very important issue. Many people count themselves as environmentalists, but when it comes to taking action, they have to choose between a large number of concerns," De Young adds.
The problem, he says, is that people need more than just information about pollution—they need lots of reasons why they should do something, and they need better guidance on how to do it before they'll change their behavior.
"Any behavior can seem incredibly simple to the expert," he says. "But the problem with experts is we don't remember our initial fumbling. So we're the worst people to explain how to do something. I take the bus, I've taken the bus for 20 years now. I have some of my colleagues who say, 'I don't know how often it comes or where it goes.' We who ride the bus everyday think nothing of those questions but for a new person starting out, those are barriers to doing it."
For Jones and her husband, clean air became a priority—10 years ago, they fled the smog of Los Angeles for East Tennessee's cleaner air (ironically, her family had moved to Southern California decades ago in search of the same resource). A third generation asthmatic, Jones takes about $300 worth of medicine each month, to prevent spasms, reduce inflammation and suppress allergies. She has a special inhalator for when she has an attack. "I don't have to do this very often," she says of the machine. "But you can imagine parents with children doing this. Often it means getting up in the middle of the night."
Jones says if things continue the way they are, it's only a matter of time before clean air becomes a priority to more than those with asthma and other lung ailments.
"We're the canaries—we're the ones getting sick, saying [the pollution] is awful. But eventually, it'll get bad enough that everyone is affected. In LA, it was so bad that your eyes watered. Some people would cough a lot. You couldn't see the mountains and the mountains were much closer than the Smokies."
But the problem is easier to fix now than it will be later.
"In Los Angeles there were more and more laws that you had to live with in order to control the problem," Jones says. "My concern is that once it reaches the critical point where everyone notices, it takes more extreme measures to get pollution under control. So there's more and more laws in Los Angeles. It's harder on businesses, it's harder on everybody. It starts intruding on your freedom."