Now that the kids are back to school and crisp fall air returns, it’s hard to remember just how bad the air felt this August.
In fact, it has been well over a decade since the East Coast suffered the kind of sustained, unhealthy air we had last month. Air pollution readings from Washington to New York to Hartford were at historic highs – 40 percent higher than federally set health limits, in some cases.
And it wasn’t just the cities. Seemingly pristine areas such as coastal Maine and the White Mountains of New Hampshire were bathed in hazy, smoggy air.
This pollution episode did more than make some of us uncomfortable – it had severe and probably long-term health effects. Smog – a deadly stew of ground-level ozone and fine particles – sent many people to the emergency rooms and some to the morgue. Ozone damages kids’ lung growth; causes asthma attacks and respiratory hospitalizations; and causes respiratory diseases like emphysema. Fine particles can cause premature cardiac death, respiratory disease, and asthma attacks.
Interestingly, also last month, the United Nations released a seven-year scientific study detailing the effects of a similar two-mile-thick “brown cloud” over South Asia.
The effects: as many as 37,000 deaths each year in just seven Indian cities, reduction in rainfall of up to 40 percent in some areas and coastal flooding in others, and a 10 percent reduction in India’s rice harvest.
Last month also brought record flooding in Europe, submerging parts of Prague and Dresden – erratic storm behavior consistent with predictions of the impacts of global warming.
What accounts for last month’s problem, and how is it connected to events abroad?
On the pollution side, ozone smog is formed in the atmosphere when emissions from local and distant power plants, trucks, cars and other sources bake in sunlight and heat. Last month, due to a sustained “Bermuda high,” the air remained stagnant, trapping the pollution.
But haven’t things gotten cleaner since 1988, making pollution events like last month’s less likely? The answer is yes and no. Despite some reductions in the last ten years in the rate of emissions per vehicle and unit of electricity in the region, overall emission levels have remained about the same or gotten worse due to more electric demand, more traffic and insufficient pollution strategies.
Furthermore, research indicates that the first half of 2002 has been the hottest half-year on record in the Northern Hemisphere and could be the warmest globally by the end of 2002. This could mean that sustained heat waves like this summer’s could become more frequent in the future.
Similar trends are at work in Asia and Europe. Power demand, traffic, and industrial growth have been steadily on the rise, along with smog, soot and surface warming.
The good news is that we can reverse these air pollution trends.
At the state level, we can:
• Reduce smog-related power plant emissions, especially at coal and oil plants, replacing them with cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable fuels.
• Install ozone and fine particle emission controls on diesel vehicles, such as city and school buses and construction equipment.
• Accelerate requirements for automakers to produce cleaner vehicles and create incentives for the purchase of efficient and ultra-clean passenger vehicles.
At the federal level, we need to:
• Pass legislation to substantially reduce power-plant ozone and fine particle emissions. As part of this legislation, we should also establish mandatory emission caps on carbon dioxide.
• Maintain rules mandating cleaner highway and off-highway diesel engines.
We can’t control the short-term weather. But these measures would provide leadership to begin to cool the globe. And they would create noticeably cleaner air in the next decade. This August’s smoggy air reminds us why even that isn’t soon enough.
Armond Cohen is executive director of the Clean Air Task Force. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org