Fact sheet from "What Have We Done?,
The Foundation for Global Sustainability's State of the Bioregion Report for the Upper Tennessee Valley and Southern Appalachian Mountains."

For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind...

Hosea 8:7

The Great Smoggy Mountains

  • The beautiful, natural blue mist for which the Smoky Mountains were named has tragically been supplanted by a white, brown or grey haze known casually as "smog." The clear blue skies of Southern Appalachia are now in the summer months more frequently grayish-white.

  • Air pollution, resulting most notably from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels for power and transportation, has reduced the visibility in the Park by eighty percent in the summer and forty percent in the winter, since 1948.

  • Major components of smog include sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), soot, and smoke. Coal burning, primarily from power plants (with TVA as a chief contributor), produces SO2. Cleaning devices in power plants, known as "scrubbers," help remove SO2 from the air. However, not all sources of sulfur dioxide have scrubbers, and no device can remove all pollutants. Once in the atmosphere, SO2 reacts with sunlight to form sulfate particles, which "shroud" the sky. Sulfates also react with water in the atmosphere to form acid precipitation.

  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx) also contribute to acid precipitation, smog and respiratory problems. Power plants, motor vehicles, leaf blowers, outboard motors, boilers, furnaces, and agricultural fertilizers are sources of NOx. Total annual NOx emissions in the region, at an all-time high of more than 500,000 tons in 1994, have now been reduced slightly to just under 500,000 tons.

  • About eleven percent of visibility impairment can be attributed to volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some VOCs are natural, others are released by the burning of fossil fuels or the evaporation of solvents in gasoline, paint, and other products. While some VOCs are relatively benign, others, such as gasoline or asphalt fumes, are poisonous or carcinogenic.

  • Soot and smoke, which also contribute to haze and health effects, are composed of elemental carbon which comes from open fires, diesel exhausts, small engines and improperly maintained automobiles.

  • Technical improvements to power plants could reduce sulfur dioxide and NOx emissions but nothing is assured. Congress can easily eliminate environmental regulations which keep TVA in line. Moreover, projected increases in electrical power demand will cause emissions of both SO2 and NOx to rise again after 2005.

    Tropospheric (Ground Level) Ozone

  • "Dilution is the solution to pollution" was industry's answer to effluent from smoke stacks in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was thought that with taller smokestacks, pollution would drift harmlessly away into the atmosphere. Into the atmosphere the effluent went, but not harmlessly.

  • The result of the taller smokestacks was that pollution now had farther-reaching effects. Pollution generated by power plants and industries in the Tennessee Valley instead traveled east above the Valley, toward the Southern Appalachian mountains, creating smog, acid rain and ozone.

  • Ozone (O3), a highly reactive form of oxygen, is produced in the troposphere (lowest six miles of the atmosphere) by a reaction of sunlight with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. This "ground level ozone" is separate from our atmosphere's protective ozone layer. Ground level ozone can exacerbate asthma and increase respiratory ailments (including scarring of the lungs), especially among children, asthma sufferers, and the elderly.

  • Knoxville, the Tennessee Valley, and especially the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have repeatedly exceeded the ground level ozone standard recommended by the American Lung Association. Levels are highest in the summer, because of increased sunlight.

  • Ozone-like damage, ranging from leaf injury and loss to reduced growth has appeared in 90 plants species in the Park, including sensitive species such as black cherry and white pine which may be driven to extinction as a result.

    Stratospheric Ozone

  • needy protective ozone layer in the stratosphere, since ozone is too unstable to make it to that level. However, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are that stable; just one CFC molecule can destroy thousands of ozone molecules. Even though their production is now banned, CFCs will persist in the atmosphere eroding the ozone layer until about 2050.

  • The stratosphere above the Southern Appalachian region has already lost up to twenty percent of its protective ozone molecules, which corresponds to a forty percent increase of harmful ultraviolet-B radiation. This type of radiation causes rapid sunburn, cataracts, skin cancer and immune system deficiencies in humans and animals. It also harms plants by changing the pigmentation, thickness and anatomy of leaves and may repress growth and flower formation and make plants more vulnerable to diseases or insect infestations.


  • Noise, while not a typical pollutant, can lead to traumatic or progressive hearing loss, and contribute to stress, headaches, nausea and high blood pressure.

  • The sounds of gun shots, chainsaws, traffic, airplanes, and helicopters have made their way into the farthest recesses of our mountain wilderness. If silence cannot be found on a mountain top, where can it be found?

    Toxic Air, Indoors

  • Indoors, cigarette smoke and radon can have harmful side effects. Cigarette smoke, has a tremendously harmful impact, contributing to lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease.

  • Radon is a natural, radioactive gas given off by rocks and soil. The combined effects of both result in a significantly increased risk of lung cancer. Other sources of indoor air pollution include a host of household products: bleach, mothballs, air fresheners, paint, plastic products, pesticides, photocopiers and many more. These can result in "sick-building syndrome," with symptoms ranging from headaches, nausea, memory loss, and immune suppression.

  • Indoor air pollution, which gets trapped and recirculated, is the most important environmental cause of cancer, according to the EPA. It can be alleviated by opening the windows. Although not always practical in the winter, the solution is viable for the summer. However, the luxury of air-conditioning, which harms both our health by contributing to air-tight buildings, and the environment, by using tremendous amounts of electricity, can be reduced and even eliminated. Fans, trees, and appropriate architecture, which most current buildings lack, can be used to make the temperature indoors bearable during the summer without the excesses of air-conditioning.

    Toxic Air, Outdoors

  • In 1993, Tennessee ranked as the second worst state in the nation for air pollution, according to reported emissions of EPA-listed toxic chemicals. Contained on the EPA list are more than 50 industries which generate over 100,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air. The chemicals listed, all of which are toxic, affect human health and the environment in varying ways--from reproductive toxins to carcinogens.

  • Amazingly, the emissions are lower than they used to be. The elimination of leaded gasoline aided tremendously. Many industries have also cleaned up their processes. Chattanooga's Polysar plants, which make latex and foam products, reduced their emissions from 954,000 pounds in 1987 to 44,000 pounds in 1994 merely by using thermal oxidizers and other such improvements.

  • The biggest industrial air polluter in Southern Appalachia is Lenzing Fibers in Lowland, Tennessee, which ranked ninth in the nation for toxic air emissions in 1994. Coming in a strong second in the bioregion is Tennessee Eastman in Kingsport, followed by Champion International Corporation. Many of Eastman's toxic air emissions now go unreported to the EPA, however, such as acetone (of which 22,200,000 pounds were emitted in 1993, the last year the company had to report it). Champion had the dubious distinction of doubling toxic emissions from 1993 to 1994, raising doubts about the corporation's highly advertised "environmental improvements."

  • TVA releases not only the aforementioned sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides but also mercury and a host of other toxic metals such as arsenic, lead, and uranium. These releases contribute to both air and water pollution. The Department of Energy plants in Oak Ridge release toxic and radioactive pollutants, and are not reported on the EPA toxic air pollutants listing. Many other industries also contribute to the region's air pollution, but because they generate less than 100,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air each year, they do not have to report to EPA.

  • One of the reasons the region is especially susceptible to air pollution is the wind flow patterns and the location of the mountains. The bioregion has one of highest incidences of stagnant air in the Eastern United States. Thus, once a pollutant is released into the air, nearby residents are subject to prolonged exposure.

    Climate Change

  • When Hurricane Opal hit the region in 1995, it destroyed entire stands of trees in the Smokies, already weakened by acid deposition, ozone damage, and infestations of foreign insects. This problem will only get worse with the prospect of global warming, which promises to bring more severe storms as the atmosphere heats up and churns like a pot of boiling water. The "greenhouse effect," as global warming is known, is caused by increasing amounts of such gases as carbon dioxide and methane which trap heat in the atmosphere.

  • In 1850, before widespread industrialization, the atmosphere contained 250 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Today, it contains about 360 parts per million--an increase of 44 percent. And, the increase is accelerating. TVA alone releases over 200 billion pounds of carbon dioxide each year (nearly 0.4 percent if the world's total), mostly from burning coal.

  • The climate change will include not just warming, but an increasing severity of all weather, including extreme cold snaps, violent storms, tornados and hurricanes. No one can predict exactly what will happen in our bioregion.

  • Rivers, lakes and streams are also affected by increasing temperatures. Fish populations would suffer with an increase in river temperature, decomposition and nutrient cycling would speed up, while higher temperatures can decrease runoff contributing to lower dissolved oxygen levels in waterways.

  • On land, higher winter temperatures would encourage the invasion of sturdier, nonnative subtropical species, causing competition and extinction of natives. Tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever might make their way up to Southern Appalachia. Also, the growing season would likely change, more severe storms would damage crops and new diseases or exotic insects may affect crops and livestock. Global warming may reduce or eliminate some tree species, altering the composition of the region's forests. Increased forest fires could result from long periods of drought.

  • Even if we were to stop releasing all greenhouse gases immediately, the atmosphere would not return to normal for centuries. However, virtually nothing is being done to slow carbon dioxide emissions, and global deforestation and increasing industrialization of less-developed nations will only accelerate the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    What Will They Breathe?

  • For each breath we take, we inhale ozone, diesel smoke, NOx and a host of toxic chemicals. But our future is even more uncertain. For every carbon atom added to the atmosphere as a result of combustion, two atoms of oxygen are removed. As a result, the oxygen content of the atmosphere is decreasing by about thirteen parts per million per year. Not only are we adding a host of harmful pollutants into our atmosphere, but also we are reducing the amount of life-giving oxygen which is present.