Vol. 10, No. 28

July 11-17, 2002

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When We All Have Bad Air Days

Chesapeake Country was downright eerie on Sunday July 7. The forecast called for a brilliantly clear day, but the sky was hazy in an odd way, and the sun seemed to have hidden somewhere.

Turns out that we were experiencing drifting smoke from forest fires far away in the Canadian province of Quebec. It was so bad in northern Maryland that suspicious folks were dialing 911.

We don’t know of any health problems that resulted in our part of the woods. Probably the only consequence was the loss of a clear, low-humidity day we relished after the scorching, bad-air days of late.

Nonetheless, the strange haze should remind us to think about the air around us. Right now is a good time to take stock, for it’s the eve of policy decisions that will govern what we breathe for years to come.

We could be feeling the results of one decision already made. Last month, the Bush administration announced plans to relax rules that forced old power plants and dirty industries to install pollution control equipment if they wished to expand. Since many of those plants send their emissions to our region on the westerly winds, the rollback will be coming our way.

But we don’t want to get caught up in the politics of the environment, with one party accusing the other of failing to protect public health.

We prefer to talk about science. For instance, a study this spring by public health experts at Harvard University reported that power plants near us contribute to about 130 premature deaths in our region — along with thousands of respiratory illnesses —every year. The researchers reached their sobering conclusion by analyzing how particulates such as soot are moved in the air by prevailing winds.

Other scientific studies have calculated the damage to Chesapeake Bay from airborne nitrogen and other pollutants.

You may or may not have heard of the president’s proposed Clean Skies Initiative. In the coming weeks, it will be much in the news as Congress ruckuses over the direction our air policies will take.

The administration proposal would cut 70 percent of common pollutants from the air by 2017. Speaking last week in the Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman said the plan can save thousands of lives in the coming years while permitting economic growth.

But a Senate proposal aims to force polluters to rid the air of contamination at a much faster pace.

How are we to balance the health of asthmatic children and older Americans with corporate profits? That is among the questions that will be asked in the coming weeks. It’s an especially good question to ponder on hot, hazy days when drawing a breath is cumbersome even for the most healthy among us.

It’s wise when thinking about our dirty air to remember that we all live downwind — some of us more so than others.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly