Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: How Important Is the Air That You Breathe?

Few things are more important than the air we breathe. And, we often take for granted our region’s relatively good air. For all of us, clean air is a quality of life issue, but for many elderly and those vulnerable to lung disease, it may be a matter of life or death.

As recently as 1999, the Washington Metropolitan Region’s air was significantly more polluted with fine particulate matter in the air than today. In 1999, there were 15 Code Red and Orange days standard exceedance days, rising to 25 in 2001. But from 2011 to 2019 (so far) there were a total of six Code Orange days over the eight-year period, with zero in most years and one Code Red day this year caused by the July 4 fireworks extravaganza, based on the 2006 particulate matter standard. The very fine particles and droplets making up this pollution can get deep into the lungs and even bloodstream and pose the greatest risk to people with heart or lung disease, older adults and children.

Ozone concentrations have also been dramatically cut. Ground level ozone is a colorless gas created when air pollutants react on hot, sunny summer days. High concentrations of ozone can cause shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, fatigue, headaches, nausea, chest pain and eye and throat irritation. Using the current standard, in 1999 there would have been 82 Code Orange, Red and Purple Days, this year so far, 10 Code Orange Days. As recently as the early 2000s, when the temperature got over 90 degrees, the air quality often went into the danger zone, today that trend is nearly eradicated.

Cleaner air did not happen by accident. It has taken the commitment and concerted action of the federal, state and local governments, communities, advocates and the private sector to produce these results that many of us take for granted. The federal government was a key player by setting ever tougher national standards including vehicle emissions and power plant standards, followed by the states and localities enacting rules and taking actions such as creating and supporting Metro, that have led to our cleaner air. But this progress is in serious jeopardy.

Since this administration has come to power, clean air regulation after regulation has been rolled back and proposed new tougher rules halted. How tragically ironic that the President argued against climate change actions recently at the U.N. and claimed that the U.S. has the cleanest air in recent times, while his EPA under his direction is gutting the very standards that are a major reason for that progress.

Among the federal standards that are most important to our region is the clean power rule that would have required cleaner power plants to our west. This is important to us because air pollution blown in from the Midwest and circulated here due to local climatic conditions are a contributor to the bad air days we experience.

Another critical issue for us is the rollback of the proposed auto emission standards. That is because our region is largely a service, rather than a manufacturing economy, so a lot of our air pollution is generated by cars and trucks. The prior President negotiated with the auto industry for tougher emission standards to be phased in. That was blocked by the current President’s EPA. When California then negotiated tougher standards with some of the auto industry, that too is being blocked by the current Administration and the cooperating auto manufacturers are also being threatened by the Administration.

The issue of climate change is, of course, a major if not existential concern. In our area we are seeing more frequent severe storms, elsewhere hurricanes are more ferocious, wildfires and droughts more common and some of the region will be impacted by sea level rise. Responding effectively to this issue will take a level of commitment and action that has seldom been matched. What should be the easy part, “at first do no harm” by maintaining and improving workable standards that have produced cleaner air, is being challenged and reversed. Even clean air has now become a battleground of political labels and ideologies. It wasn’t always that way; it shouldn’t be now.

Growing up in the coal region outside of Pittsburgh, I lived through times when the sky was not usually blue and a smoggy haze was all too common. Then, a bipartisan consensus was formed and we acted, and in so doing achieved amazing success. But there is more we must do or we run the risk of backsliding. We should start by protecting the clean air laws and standards that have worked and that are proposed to produce even better results.

The stakes in this fight are important, maybe more important than just about any other issue that is currently being debated.

David Snyder is a member of the Falls Church City Council.