Saturday, April 20, 2013

Air quality in Rochester, NY as we head into Climate Change

According to the American Lung Association’s report “State of the Air 2012”, Monroe County received a grade of ‘C’ for ground-level ozone. That means Monroe County had four orange-alert days.  That’s up from the 2011 report when we had got an ‘F’. Back in 2004, Rochester was ranked 43rd worst metropolitan area for air quality. (Dirty Air, Dirty Power.) And, the last time the EPA measured Monroe County for ground-level ozone in 1997, we received a ‘marginal’ grade, up from the previous ‘nonattainment’ grade.

This progress seems to be good news until you consider the complexity of air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) measures carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone, lead, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and mercury.  But even the EPA only measures a fraction of the air pollutants that assault our lungs. There are at least 188 hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) that the Clean Air Act does not establish air quality standards for.  You can find out a variety of toxins (called a toxic release inventory (TRI)) being released in our Rochester area by checking the Right To Know Network. Or, go to Scorecard and punch in your zip code to find out who’s polluting near your home.

However, these air quality figures don’t explain their full impact on the flora and fauna in our region; and, none of them measure how all this will factor in determining the effects of Climate Change on our public health and our environment. Insects that feed on our agriculture, digest organic waste and provide nourishment for other creatures are affected by air pollution. Fish are affected by acid rain pouring down from nearby power plants. Birds, amphibians, our pets are affected by poor air quality.  All this gets magnified by Climate Change, but how?  It’s not that folks haven’t been trying to figure out the impacts of Climate Change on air quality, or even the impacts of air quality on wildlife, it’s that we know too little about how so many air pollutants that we don’t monitor or measure will react to each other as our atmosphere warms—a scenario our species has never experienced.

Sorry to be so dreary.  It’s nice when we can boil down figures like air quality into easy-to-comprehend grades of concern, but it’s also delusionary. If you only measure a relative few of the air pollutants in only a relatively few places (much of the world is not monitoring all air pollutants), on only a relatively few species (humans and some trophy animal species) and don’t factor in all this into your Climate Change studies, you are making plans for a planet that only exists in your mind.  In the real world this ocean of air that extends about seven miles up has been filling up with everything we’ve been throwing into it.  If you can picture how a fish might feel when a factory dumps PCB’s into its breathing apparatus, then you can imagine the contaminants our lungs have been sucking in besides fresh clean air.

In the real world our environment that doesn’t play politics, doesn’t heed economic rules, couldn’t care less about our ability to absorb and deal with bad news; it operates with what it has.  What it has, what our planet has been breathing in since the Industrial Revolution, is too many greenhouse gases mixed with too many manmade toxins. What does progress on improving our air quality mean if we cherry-pick air pollution issues according to our desire to monitor, measure, and police them?  What does sustainability mean if we will only consider endless growth fueled by greenhouse gases, which are mixed with god knows what?

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