State of Ohio’s Air (and Lungs): Hard to See Improvement Among All the Fs

Last week, Earth Day commemorations included a listing of the “most green” and “least green” states. As I wrote then, Ohio won the gold – or tarnished – ring and was named the most least green state in the country. Yippee.

Now comes the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report for 2011. The Columbus Dispatch reports that, relatively speaking, there’s been some improvement:

Heidi Griesmer, an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman, said the bad smog grades don’t reflect the region’s steady improvement in air quality. Mandatory pollution cuts at power plants, cleaner fuels and lower-polluting cars are driving the reductions, she said.

The bad smog grades are due in part to research indicating that even lower concentrations pose health risks. The U.S. EPA is expected to propose a tougher smog standard this year, and central Ohio is expected to fail that, too.

But when you look at the grades and information for all of Ohio and for my region, Cuyahoga County, it’s impossible to ignore the miserably low expectations we’ve set if these grades are an improvement.  The Plain Dealer, the paper of record in NE Ohio, says as much not only in its headline, “Lung Association annual air pollution report marks improvement, but air still poor in Cleveland, U.S.,” and amplifies that sentiment in the article:

Overall, roughly half the people (about 50.3 percent) in the United States live in counties that have unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle pollution. That means nearly 154.5 million Americans live in the 366 counties where they are exposed to dirty air.

The Cleveland-Akron area was ranked as having the 12th worst air in the country for year-round particle pollution, meaning the accumulated count of particulates in the air over an entire year. The area remains outside the accepted levels set by the EPA, although the totals have dropped in each of the last several years.

Several things about Northeast Ohio’s location and occupations combine to make our air among the worst in the nation.They include: heavy industry and steel mills, urban traffic and suburban sprawl and nearby coal-fired power plants. But the region also gets pollution blown in from from power plants elsewhere and occupies the midpoint on a highway system that connects New York City and Chicago, experts say.

Earlier this week, I was asked several questions about why I’m writing about the environment so deliberately right now, especially as that relates to me being a mother of three school-aged kids.  My response was: 1) my kids know more than I do about the current and potential dangers of ignoring how we interact with our environment, and that can’t hold, but also 2) is there anything that we do that does not involve the environment?

Certainly there isn’t anything we do that doesn’t involve air.

Furthermore, one of my kids has reactive airway disease, which itself is a controversial label but basically if he gets a cold, it often manifests into an upper respiratory set of problems. But you better believe that when he gets that cold, the first thing I fear is that it will turn into something upper respiratory.  Thank goodness, overall, we have few health problems (that we can see or are currently experiencing, anyway) compared to so many Ohioans.  This Toledo Blade article demonstrates that:

Government statistics cited by the lung association in State of the Air show nearly one of every 10 Lucas County residents — 45,447 of 463,493 residents — have asthma, with 10,317 of them being 18 or younger. About 40 percent have other health conditions that can be exacerbated by air pollution, the most prevalent in Lucas County being cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The “what can we do” part starts with not being nearly as passive as the potential killers in our bad air. Take a look and notice how many of the suggestions are no-brainers:

  • Combine errands to reduce “cold starts” of your car and avoid extended idling.
  • Be sure your tires are properly inflated
  • Consider using gas logs instead of wood. If you use a wood-burning stove or fireplace insert, make sure it meets EPA design specifications. Burn only dry, seasoned wood.
  • Mulch or compost leaves and yard waste.
  • Limit engine idling.

Seriously – how hard – or newfangled – are any of those suggestions (or the many others at the link above)?  I’ve been hearing them since I was a kid more than 40 years ago.  I know they say habits take a long time to break and be formed, but it’s really time to stop taking the Scarlett O’Hara approach to getting this stuff under control and make “improvement” mean more than just not having all Fs.

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