Breathing Lessons

In 1995, 18 million American children under 10 lived in areas of ozone “non-attainment,” meaning the air they breathed didn’t meet minimal federal standards. That number is higher today. What’s a parent to do?

The Natural Resources Defense Council has some ideas, which include limiting your children’s outdoor exercise and participation in school sports on days when smog levels are high. But few parents want to be that kind of watchdog, especially when kids are already spending 90 percent of their time indoors (where air quality is even worse) .

As our cover story reveals, the U.S. has been in an air-quality crisis since World War II, when smog first settled over Los Angeles and defense workers began complaining of itchy eyes. It was an early indicator of a situation that soon spun out of control. By 1956, 94.7 percent of the city’s population could recognize the physical symptoms of “smog poisoning”: chest pains, red eyes, coughing, nausea and headaches. Today, 10 percent of the Los Angeles Basin’s population has fallen victim to asthma, emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

Children are the most vulnerable: They’re more active, are outside more, and because their lungs aren’t yet fully developed, breathe more air per pound than adults. Five million American children have asthma today, and it has become the most common chronic childhood illness. A 1987 lung study at the University of Southern California (USC) found that 75 percent of young accident and homicide victims had at least some airspace inflammation, and that 27 percent had severe damage. USC’s Dr. Kay Kilburn says that by merely growing up in the Los Angeles basin, children face a 10 to 15 percent decrease in lung capacity.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed stronger clean air regulations in 1997, but if some litigious business lobbies get their way, the new rules will never take effect. The belching factory smokestacks outside a tycoon’s window, which once symbolized wealth and progress, have now taken on a darker meaning, but still pour forth profit for a select few.

Nowhere is this more clearly symbolized than in the battle to protect the air in 22 states east of the Mississippi River, which suffer when prevailing winds carry pollution from Midwestern coal-burning power plants. Ordered to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 2003, the utility owners of these outdated plants (protected by “grandfather” clauses) went to court, winning a stay of execution. When the legal battles will end is anybody’s guess.

These are not academic discussions. Polluted air kills an estimated 40,000 Americans every year, according to the Environmental Working Group. Some 1,600 will die in the Los Angeles area alone.

We are entering an election year, when the swift sword of strong environmental law is often stayed by the shield of political compromise. The coal-burning utilities, plus the oil and automobile companies that block tailpipe emissions reform, represent huge blocks of campaign cash. Against the roar of money talking, Americans have to make their voices heard for clean air.

If there’s a ray of hope here, it’s on the campuses, where students are learning the facts about air quality and other environmental problems, and increasingly applying them in a resurgence of green activism. Their story begins on page 36.

The global warming naysayers love to argue that “the science is inconclusive” about the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Well, the facts are definitely in on ground-level ozone, also known as smog, and it’s a killer. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Jim Motavalli