Sunday, May 02, 2010

Rochester’s failing air quality

Ho Hum. The Rochester, NY area and Monroe County get another failing grade for ozone pollution, an ‘F’, from the American Lung Association’s The State of the Air 2010 “. Here’s the skinny: “The State of the Air 2010 shows that the air quality in many places has improved, but that over 175 million people—roughly 58 percent—still suffer pollution levels that are too often dangerous to breathe. Unhealthy air remains a threat to the lives and health of millions of people in the United States, despite great progress. Even as the nation explores the complex challenges of global warming and energy, air pollution lingers as a widespread and dangerous reality.”

It’s a yawner for most folks as it goes on year after year and no one is getting worked up about it. No marching in the streets. It barely gets local news coverage. Environmental news of this sort is like riding in a jet and feeling a sudden drop in altitude. You look around and no one else seems to be paying any attention, so it must be OK. Relax, take a deep breath.

But, that’s part of the problem. Taking a deep breathe might be difficult on a high ozone day. Check it out: “Ozone in the lower atmosphere is an air pollutant with harmful effects on the respiratory systems of animals and will burn sensitive plants...” (Ozone – Wikipedia)

We’ve become so inured to air pollution that it barely registers in our brain. (Smog, oh that.) Though, there were times when it used to. Decades ago, when urban areas were so filled with air pollution from coal and wood burning in both industry and individual households, the public demanded something be done about it. At times it got really bad: “During the week of December 4 though 10, 1952, London suffered the worst recorded air pollution disaster anywhere, bringing early deaths to 4,000 people.” (Something New Under the Sun, by J.R. McNeil).

Then laws got passed. Pollution controls got tighter. Smoke stacks got taller, which sent the stuff higher and further away. Coal burning in the cities was replaced by the less (overtly) polluting oil and gas burners.

Then about fifty years ago, vehicular traffic (which had, of course, been around for a while) finally got to the point where it has become the great air offender. As a result, pollution controls were required for vehicles, and (when gas prices went up) engines with better miles-per-galloon showed up at the car dealers. But obviously not enough of them. With Nature there isn’t a mark for trying.

What makes the present air quality problem so difficult to solve is that, unlike slapping a few industries with lawsuits for polluting as we did in the past, the problem now is us. All of us who drive gas-guzzlers are adding to the problem of air pollution in our cities. Driving a personal vehicle even for short distances (which constitutes most travel) is so ubiquitous that it seems like one of those inalienable rights. And maybe it is, but even in school, if you constantly get a failing grade, someday they throw you out.

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