Vol. 9, No. 19
May 10-16, 2001
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The Air Up There

How can it be?

A new study ranking Anne Arundel County as the 10th worst for smog among 668 counties in the United States has generated no small amount of consternation.

The air doesn't look - or smell - that bad. So what are they talking about?

The report by the American Lung Association measured ozone pollution, which is confusing in itself because we often hear about threats from ozone depletion in the atmosphere. How can ozone be both good and bad?

The "good" ozone is the protective layer in the earth's upper atmosphere that is being diminished by carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

Then there's ground-level ozone, the main ingredient of smog, which occurs when volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxide become mixed in the presence of sunlight. That's what we have to worry about and why the American Lung Association compiled its report.

Smog, which can trigger asthma and other respiratory problems, is dangerous to our youngest and oldest people. In yet another troubling statistic, about 50,000 Maryland children suffer asthma.

In many ways, we are victims of our geography, which in most ways is enviable. We have Chesapeake Bay as well as the ocean, mountains and the most powerful city in the world in close proximity. But we are enduring more tailpipe pollution from our increasing traffic, and we also are the recipients of wind-blown pollution from coal-fired power plants to the west.

So what do we do about it?

One step is to avoid the popular sentiment of criticizing air pollution rules because they come from Big Government, cost money and inconvenience us when we must detour for emission testing. Clearly, we are among those with the most to gain from cleaning up the air.

We also must be aware when our leaders mislead us. That was the case last week when Vice President Dick Cheney played down the role of conservation in solving our energy problems. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue," he said, "but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

Cheney was attempting to build the case for more oil and gas drilling, often in pristine wilderness and along coastlines. Unfortunately, he did so by telling the American people that they could do little individually - other than trust the oil companies. What we witnessed was a conservative belittling conservation.

We believe - and there's plenty of science to back us up - that conservation yields health benefits. Car-pooling, bus-riding and biking help reduce traffic and the smog that threatens our families. But cars are how most of us who live in Chesapeake Country get around. What can we, who are hooked on driving, do? We can choose from the new crop of environmentally friendly hybrid autos, and we can push our preferred vehicle maker to hurry their EV onto the road.

We also believe that people are prepared to join together to conserve, much as Americans mobilized a few years back to begin massive home recycling. To do that, we need from all levels of government the kind of practical help that has made recycling work. Until we get and use alternatives to fossil fuels to supply our energy and get us around, we're destined to receive more bad air report cards telling us that Chesapeake County isn't as lovely as it seems.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly