Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Air Pollution: No Outrage, Just Inaction

If the DC area's water quality were as poor as its air quality, there would be protests in the streets.

A few years back when elevated levels of lead were found in DC's drinking water, there was a massive public outcry, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations.

But report after report warns us of the unhealthy condition of our region's air, yet we do nothing about it. We already knew the DC area's carbon emissions are spiking, with Virginia leading the way. And according to a new American Lung Association report, the air in DC isn't quite as bad as the air in Los Angeles -- but it's close:

The lung association checked for three kinds of pollution: ozone and two kinds of soot -- short-term and year-round exposure -- and found that 136 million people lived in U.S. counties with unhealthy levels of at least one of the three.

Los Angeles was ranked as the most polluted U.S. city for all three categories, even though the report found pollution levels have dropped there. Houston, Dallas, New York, Washington and Philadelphia were among the worst cities for ozone pollution.

Washington and Philadelphia were also on the list of the cities with the most soot. Others were Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and Baltimore.

You can read the American Lung Association's full report here.

So why doesn't poor air quality get people riled up like poor water quality? Major water problems are certainly easier for us to detect -- bad water may look or taste funny, or we may be told we have to boil it. But major air problems show up in more insidious ways, like higher rates of childhood asthma, and DC has one of the highest rates in the entire country.

But here's the bottom line -- water problems can be solved by the government without the need for changes in personal habits, while it takes individual change to address air problems. Sure, the government can ban coal-fired power plants or mandate tougher emissions standards. But paying more for a hybrid, taking public transportation more frequently, or running the air conditioner less are sacrifices most of us haven't yet been willing to make.

There is some good news. Another new report says once adopted, we won't have to wait decades to see the benefits of clean air policies. According to the World Health Organization, they yield immediate health benefits.

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