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Manufacturing adds a lot of carbon to the atmosphere. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/akeg/376488289/">Eric Schmuttenmaer</a>, Creative Coimmons, some rights reserved
Manufacturing adds a lot of carbon to the atmosphere. Photo: Eric Schmuttenmaer, Creative Coimmons, some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Carbon

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Last week we learned how nitrogen affects us. This week, Martha Foley talks with Dr. Curt Stager about how carbon cycles through the atmosphere and the bodies of all living things.

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When you hear about carbon and ecology, you may think about climate change. According to Dr. Curt Stager, “Some of the new findings are showing that whatever your opinions are on climate change, the carbon we are emitting from fossil fuels is literally, physically changing who we are.”

Carbon atoms behave identically whether the source is naturally occurring, or the result of human activity. About a quarter of the atoms in our bodies are carbon. We use these atoms in the proteins of our hair, the genes of our cells, and in our muscles.

While plants and algae take in carbon directly from the atmosphere, we take in carbon through eating, not breathing. Of all the carbon in the atmosphere, about one quarter of it come from the burning of coal, oil, and gas, and through deforestation. About one quarter of the carbon plants take in comes from fossil fuels. Animals eat the plants and we eat both. “A quarter of our body, you could say, is processed air pollution,” says Stager.

Humans activity rivals geological change as a force of nature. When we release carbon into the air, it doesn’t go away. It churns in the atmosphere for about a year and then finds its way back into our bodies. While carbon itself is not harmful to us in the body, other harmful elements such as mercury can be emitted when burning carbon-based fuels, and come back into the body along with the carbon through the food chain.

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