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Particulates Rising

by Christa Wagner

August 4,2005

Ever notice how during the most doggedly-dog days of summer reporters can’t find anything else to talk about than the weather? You can’t really blame them. It’s too hard to think when the mercury tops 100. As soon as half the staff takes off for vacation, you can bet that every newspaper around the country pulls out the stock cover story about the relentless summer heat and cracks open a cold one.

Well, my brain’s on vacation too, so that’s why this month’s column is devoted to the science of summer weather. Normally I wouldn’t find this topic very interesting but now that I work for the Sierra Club and spend a lot of time thinking about the critical need to reduce global warming, the distressingly large number of kids with asthma, and the darn-near annihilation of every sound environmental protection in American since the 1970’s, I suddenly find science fascinating.

Most people’s eyes glaze over at the mere smell of a statistic, but there are some facts worth knowing. The air quality in America is bad and it’s getting worse. Asthma is reaching epidemic proportions, with an 86 percent increase in childhood asthma over the past 10 years in the United States. A large body of evidence links the increase in asthma to the increase of particulate and ozone pollution in the air. The dangerous chemical cocktail that triggers asthma has a relatively straightforward formula: heat + light + cars = ozone. Power plants are the other big polluter, chugging out sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in unhealthful doses all over the country.

While some places in the country are fairly immune to the bad air boondoggle, Charlotte is not. The American Lung Association found Charlotte ranked 12th on its 2005 bad air list.

Now, we all know that the Queen city works hard to distinguish itself from its neighbor to the south, but a quick check of the EPA website shows that on high ozone days, it’s virtually impossible to tell the home of the Bobcats from the home of the Braves. Occasionally, Birmingham joins the party but usually Atlanta and Charlotte are in a league of their own.

The fact that similarly high ozone levels occur in different areas on the same day is not surprising because Charlotte and Atlanta share the same types of summer conditions: long days, hot weather, stagnant air and lots of cars.

Even in all this mind-numbing, lugubrious heat there are some robust efforts to make sure our air is clean and safe to breathe. For example, North Carolina’s Attorney General Roy Cooper filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency citing that 13 downwind states, including Georgia, are making it impossible for North Carolina to keep its air clean.

Recently, the EPA came back with a draft rule saying they recognize the air is bad, but the existing federal standards are enough to clean it up. Unfortunately the cap and trade scheme EPA is suggesting is not adequate to address the polluted air blowing across our borders. The EPA needs to do better for North Carolinians and the residents of surrounding states.

Here’s the thing: If ever there was a time to seek reductions of pollutants to clean the air and protect public health, this would be the time. Sure, there are people out there who despise regulation more than they dislike those bellyaching environmentalists. I wish I could say that environmentalists were the only ones complaining. But there are people in the public health community, the youth soccer leagues, the emergency room doctors, the agriculture workers suffering from heat stroke and parents with asthmatic kids that want clean air.

There are companies losing money with absentee employees and cities failing to attract businesses that don’t want to be shackled with bad air. There are people of faith fighting climate change and sportsmen that would like to see the critter they’re after through all the smog and haze, soccer moms and NASCAR dads and a stellar attorneys general, all just wanting fewer high ozone days, hearty breaths of fresh air to breathe and a little dog-gone relief from that relentless summer heat.

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