The Air That I Breathe

I was relieved to discover last week that, even though the air that I breathe has just been deemed unhealthy by the federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is hard at work making things better. In announcing that 225 counties in 20 states (including Fairfield County, Connecticut, where I live) fail to meet clean air standards for microscopic soot, outgoing EPA chief Mike Leavitt declared, “This is not a story about the air getting dirtier. It is a story about higher, more stringent standards and healthier air.” That’s nice to know. Cough, cough.

Power plants like this one in Connecticut's Fairfield County are partially to blame for air woes around the country.© Brian C. Howard

Soot, also known as particulate matter, is what comes out of power plant smokestacks, trash incinerators and diesel exhaust. Soot particles are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (a 30th the size of a human hair) and can easily lodge in the lungs. According to the EPA, “While fine particulates are unhealthy for anyone to breathe, people with heart or lung disease, older adults and children are especially at risk. Exposure to elevated particulate levels can increase respiratory symptoms in sensitive individuals, can aggravate heart and lung diseases, and can cause premature death of people with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly.”

In this case, the 220 counties (plus the District of Columbia) have three years to come up with a pollution-reduction plan for particulates. The air is supposed to meet federal standards in 2010. A big loophole allows five-year extensions to 2015. The reductions may not be easy to achieve here in Connecticut, which is bisected by very busy, truck-laden I-95, hosts a belching garbage-to-energy incinerator, and is home to the “sooty six” coal-burning power plants. And there’s also the fact that we’re hit by power plant pollution from the Midwest. President Bush, meanwhile, reportedly bowed to polluter pressure and delayed until March at the earliest a regulation called the Clean Air Interstate Rule that would reduce out-of-state pollution in 29 eastern states.

The New York Times reported that clearing the air of particulate matter will require a multi-faceted approach. “While coal-fired power plants account for much of the problem in the East, vehicle exhaust is the major offender in parts of California,” the paper wrote. “That means an Eastern state’s solution might include new technologies for power plant smokestacks, while California could propose anything from electrical outlets at truck stops, so that drivers would have incentive to turn off their engines overnight, to new initiatives for mass transit, said Steve Johnson, deputy EPA administrator. Most states, though, would probably seek to control emissions from all types of sources.”

The American Lung Association gives Fairfield County, Connecticut (which is part of the New York City metro area) an overall “F” for ozone, a harbinger of smog. The ozone conditions merit an “orange alert” (unhealthy for sensitive groups) 47 days of the year, a red alert (unhealthy) 12 days and a purple alert (very unhealthy) two days. We also get an F for particulate pollution, with nine days a year rating an orange alert. The county has 56,065 cases of adult asthma and 19,686 cases of pediatric asthma.

Don’t assume your air is any better. To find out how you’re faring, check out the American Lung Association’s county-by-county listing. I clicked around, and discovered that Iowa, Hawaii and Nebraska appear to have fairly good air quality amid a sea of failing grades. I’m packing my bags for Maui.

According to the Associated Press, some 95 million people live in Washington, D.C. and the 225 counties (which are mostly east of the Mississippi River). The worst problems are in the Los Angeles area and the Boston-Washington corridor, and in the cities of Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit. If federal standards were met, AP says it “would prevent at least 15,000 premature deaths, 95,000 cases of bronchitis and 10,000 hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.”

Environmentalists say the Bush report is less than meets the eye. According to Clean Air Watch President Frank O’Donnell, the EPA omitted many areas with big smokestack polluters that are harming public health. “In effect, the EPA gave these big polluters an early Christmas present,” O’Donnell said.

The list of designated bad air counties is crucial because it determines what gets cleaned up, and which big-ticket polluters will have to come in compliance. The group Clear the Air has developed a list of the many high-emission power plants that were spared by the new designations.

Michael Shore of Environmental Defense also saw the real news behind the headlines. “This is also a story about EPA failing to finalize rules to clean up power plant pollution,” Shore told the AP. “The Bush administration frankly deserves a lump of coal for its failure to protect the health of our children from power plant pollution.”

Leavitt, on his way out the door, calls all of this “an American success story.”