My boyfriend and I (we’re both in our early 30′s) have a bet: I say air quality is better than when we were kids, he says it’s worse. Who’s right?
–Itching to Be Right
Though it’s always fun to watch one half of a couple do the “I’m right and you’re wrong” dance, I’m sorry to report that nobody’s winning the bet on this one. You’re both right, depending on what kind of standard you’re using to judge air quality, and where you live.
Overall, air quality has improved in most parts of the United States, due to several decades of pollution rules and enforcement under the Clean Air Act. In the Southeastern parts of the country where population growth has exploded, there are higher levels of pollution than before (since housing wasn’t exactly planned around people riding their air-friendly bikes to work), but they’re still within the normal range on most days. Some cities, like Los Angeles, have made dramatic improvements in air quality, something that Angelenos notice when they step outside their doors and enjoy visible views. That’s the good news.
The bummer is, “While there’s less air pollution than in the past, pollution is much more dangerous than we originally thought, so that even the lower levels today still impact people’s health negatively,” says Paul Billings, the VP of National Policy and Advocacy for the American Lung Association and husband of Debbie Downer. (That second part’s a lie, but he really burst my happy bubble there.)
So how the heck are we supposed to know whether to crawl out from under our (air-conditioned) rocks or not? The EPA keeps track of five major air pollutants, which are generated from power plants and vehicle exhaust, as well as other industrial applications: ozone, particulates, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide are the baddies. All of these pollutants affect everyone, though children, the elderly and those with respiratory or heart conditions are more affected than others, which is why the EPA puts out warnings on certain days that the air is not healthy for some folks. (You can check the EPA daily for any area of the country to find out how nasty it is outside.) Needless to say, “The air might be cleaner now, but we still need to do more,” says Billings.
And while clean-air technology like catalytic converts for cars and smokestack scrubbers for power plants has improved, there are more air conditioners, rechargeable cell phones and iPods, not to mention people (who drive cars) than ever before, meaning that to keep the clean air gains we’ve made, we’re either going to have to continue to reduce emissions via regulation or cut down on energy use and population growth.
Comprimisingly Yours, Chicky