Vol. 10, No. 35

August 29 - September 4, 2002

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Code Red
by Frank L. Fox

So you think this summer’s been hot? Well, that’s only part of the story. From June 1 to August 13, the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan regions have been blanketed with unhealthy air for days.

Thirty-six days and counting … coping with air you can see and don’t want to breathe. Sure, the worst of it is in our two neighboring urban areas, but, in a sense, we all live downwind. And our actions and habits contribute to the stew.

Most ozone-forming fumes come from our infernal combustion machines — exhaust from autos, powerboats, mowers and refueling vapors. Hence, we are asked to limit these activities on bad-air days. These fumes are ‘cooked’ by sunlight to produce ozone, a serious lung irritant, which reaches dangerous levels on hot, stagnant days.

But we drive. Some because we must for employment, but mostly because Americans love to drive. It’s the freedom and comfort and independence that we crave. But at what price? And I don’t mean the cost of our subsidized, cheap gasoline.

Recently the University of Southern California completed a study of 5,500 children and found that exposure to ground-level ozone can cause asthma in kids. Both the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas (of which Anne Arundel, Calvert and Charles counties are parts) exceed the health standard for ozone 20 to 40 times every summer, putting children at risk because they are most active outside. Studies on the East Coast have also linked increased respiratory hospital admissions for both seniors and the young to repeated exposures to ozone.

Our local and state governments labor to improve air quality and meet federal clean air standards. They must soon, because federal transportation dollars are linked to compliance. However, our air problems aren’t getting much better — even though bus ridership sometimes doubles on Code Red days, and maybe we don’t mow the lawn (but whose grass is growing anyway in this drought?).

The EPA has declared Maryland, D.C. and Virginia a region of “serious unattainment” since the Clean Air Act revision in 1990. Even with improved emission standards, cleaner fuels, and regular trips to Maryland’s vehicle emissions inspection program, we still have too many days of ugly air. Why?

We are driving more, and we like to drive vehicles that are not very efficient. In fact, the Maryland Department of the Environment predicts that vehicle emissions will begin to increase dramatically due to a projected 65 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled between 2005 and 2010. And you know how crowded the roads are with gas-guzzling SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks.

Can we change our driving ambitions and soon enough to turn this trend around?

In fairness, commuter bus ridership in Southern Maryland increases at the highest rate in the state. But people argue that we can’t spend taxpayer money to build additional, more convenient public transit. Strange, because we seem to stomach the costs and grief of more respiratory and heart disease that results from our polluted air.

You may be interested to know that the Air Quality Index has added a new color – Code Purple – to signify air worse than Code Red.

Yet even as the weather cools, some of us will be provoked enough at this sad state of air to remain at “Code Red” in our displeasure, and stay at “Code Red” in our actions for change.

We can drive more sensibly, combining errands into fewer trips. Use public transit when possible. Carpool. Buy gas-efficient or hybrid vehicles. Live nearer to work or telecommute.

Demand our public officials focus growth to stop sprawl development and greatly expand transportation options. Stay hot for clean air and better health all year round. It’s good exercise.
Learn more about clean air advocacy at or

Frank Fox is conservation chair of the Sierra Club Southern Maryland Group and drives a 1989 Nissan Sentra that averages 38mpg.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly