Heavy Breathing

A recent poll here shows that people think that the air quality in their neighborhood is better than the air quality in the region… and they may be right.  Six of the top ten polluters in the state are located in south Mississippi, including three power plants plus a chemical plant, oil refinery, and paper mill. 

The EPA determines standards for six criteria pollutants.  These include particulate matter, sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), lead (Pb), and carbon monoxide (CO), as well as ozone.  Ozone in the upper atmosphere forms a protective layer against UV rays, so holes in the ozone layer 6-30 miles above the earth are a problem; down here in the lower atmosphere, ozone is created when a chemical reaction occurs between emissions such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds meet sunlight and cause a breathing hazard.

The allowable amount of ozone in the air is 75 parts per billion.  The EPA issued a draft standard earlier this year intended to lower the acceptable level of ozone to 60-70 ppb.  From the EPA website:  “Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ground-level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.

The proposed EPA standard set off a firestorm of controversy about the effect on industry and jobs.  This is a default maneuver by lobbyists, and happens whenever restrictions might cut into profits.  Industry has made these arguments before. They almost always turn out to be exaggerated.” (New York Times editorial, “A Bad Call on Ozone”, September 3, 2011.)  Yesterday, the Obama Administration responded to the pressure and abandoned adoption of the stricter ozone standard, citing the mandatory review scheduled for 2013.

The old EPA standard isn’t going to help my neighborhood’s air quality improve, and we are already close to non-attainment status.  Non-attainment has a direct effect on state funding through the “transportation conformity” requirement.  No new highway projects.  No dollars for road improvements.  Altered traffic patterns, reducing single-occupancy vehicles, and improving transit systems and bicycle access are required.

In southern California, meteorologists announce air quality daily, newspapers report at a neighborhood level, and bank readerboards list hazardous days along with the time and temperature.  Why do people think that where they live has safer air than where they work?  The reassurance of a tree canopy leads us to believe in the efficacy of their filtering process.  The lack of visible smog, smoke, and particles in the air follows the adage “out of sight, out of mind.”  The smokestacks may be the visible symbol of pollution, but the emissions are real, whether we see them or not. 

(Check for the major polluters in your neighborhood at www.planethazard.com.)