The Lehigh Valley is the 13th-Smoggiest Medium-Sized Metro Region in the Country, according to a new report, Danger in the Air, produced by PennEnvironment.
There was a time when this would have been because of all of the industry booming here along our rivers. These days, it’s mostly because of how much time most of us spend in our cars. We’re a commuting metro region, and 1-78, the great East Coat conduit that cuts right through our valley, brings thousands of just-passing-through drivers who leave their emissions hanging in low elevation between our mountains. On hot summer days, those emissions interact with naturally-occurring volatile organic compounds, get baked by the sun, and make for unhealthy levels of smog in the region.
That the Lehigh Valley has air quality (and commuter) problems isn’t news. What many folks don’t know, however, is that the air quality standards the EPA currently uses to warn the public about bad air quality days is, by most scientific accounts, sadly out of date. Barack Obama has recently punted the issue to 2013, an awfully presumptive move at the moment.
Here in Pennsylvania, meteorologists at the Department of Environmental Protection produce air quality forecasts every day that specifically indicate the levels of fine particle pollution and ground-level ozone (o3) likely to be present in our air. These levels are matched against the federal Air Quality Index, a color-coded indicator meant to tell us when air conditions will be unsafe for various groups. Green Days are supposed to be healthy for everyone. Yellow Days are likely to be unhealthy for children, the elderly, and people with respiratory conditions. Orange follows yellow, red follows orange, and Purple Days are unsafe for everyone. Maroon Days are extremely dangerous.
Working in accordance with these federal guide lines, which PennEnvironment and others have called out-of-date, the DEP announces Air Quality Action Days when levels for either pollutant (particle pollution, in this case, PM2.5, and ground-level ozone) are expected to exceed Code Yellow levels. Once upon a time in the Lehigh Valley, residents could ride LANTA for free on Air Quality Action Days when orange levels were exceeded. The “Ride Free On Red” program has been without vital state funding for some time, even though evidence compiled by LANTA and the Air Quality Partnership shows clear surges in LANTA use, especially among the elderly, on Code Red Days.
Why was this important? Because ride-sharing, car-pooling, and mass-transit are essential to reducing ozone emissions (smog) generally and on Air Quality Action Days specifically. There are other personal choices and behaviors that citizens can use to reduce their personal levels of smog production, and they can all be found at AirQualityAction.org, the online home of the Air Quality Partnership of Lehigh Valley – Berks.
As I said on television and in the press release accompanying the release of the report, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania can and should play a lead role in demanding a much-needed change to federal guidelines, and should also make it easy for government agencies and state businesses to incentivize the kinds of commuter habits that would help us reduce ozone levels across the state.
All of this comes as some presidential contenders are pushing for the abolition of the EPA. I saw one prospective voter question the validity of regulating “dust,” certainly not knowing the the regular of fine particle pollution (like the regulation of ground-level ozone emissions) saves lives. Particle pollution doesn’t just dissipate to nothing. It turns out that Kansas was wrong about that: dust in the wind ends up lungs, and so does ground-level ozone. Both put our most vulnerable populations at risk, and reducing the occurrence of both here in the greater Lehigh Valley is the Air Quality Partnership’s main mission.
We’re at a critical economic, political, and environmental crossroads. Our partnership needs increased participation from business, government, and health leaders. We need new ways to fund projects like “Ride Free on Red,” and we need public engagement in initiatives like our newest endeavor, the Share the Ride Challenge. We continue to have great successes with regional educators and students, providing tremendous educational resources ate age-specific levels to primary and secondary public schools across three counties.
I’m an asthma sufferer, but as I said last week, our calls for continued education, advocacy, and support are not a case of special pleading. We all breathe the same air, and most of us are just as culpable as the next person in the production of smog. Our partnership exists to educate, to advocate, and encourage practical changes at corporate and private levels so that we all might breathe a little easier. Please help us.