Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Smog Dilemma (EPA acts, sort of)

I read an article in the New York Times today that prompted a good bit of thought. The essence of the article is that the U.S. EPA is lowering (tightening, that is) the Federal ground level ozone standards for air quality. This is, in fact, a good thing in general. I happen to work in a field that deals with air quality, and diesel engines (a central part of my research topic) are a prime source of NOX, which combines with unburned hydrocarbons (gas vapor, paint fumes, swamp gas, etc.) on hot sunny days to form ground level ozone. Wait a minute, you say, I thought we were tryingto protect the ozone layer, I thought ozone was good!? Well, it turns out that way up high, miles in the sky, ozone serves a very important function of blocking UV light, so we want to not emit chemicals that destroy the ozone up high. But ozone is actually a powerful oxidizer which irritates and inflames lung tissue. It sends tens thousands of people to the ER, causes missed work and school, corrodes plastic, darkens wood, etc.
So first comes the rant. According to the article, EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, a Bush appointee, did a classic Bush move and ignored the advice of his top scientific advisers and lowered the allowable 8-hour average concentration half way to their recommended level (from the current 84 parts per billion to 75ppb instead of 60-70ppb). This may seem like fine parsing, but the impacts could be big. The bottom line is this: when a municipality consistently experiences air quality below the federal standard, they are required by law to form a plan to clean things up or they lose money for highway building projects. If there's no air quality trigger, then nothing happens. Lowering the standard will effectively cause more cities to start cleaning up their air, much to the benefit of city dwellers everywhere. What irks me about the decision is that it is yet another in a long train of snubs by the Bush Administration of scientific advice regarding the environment. Shall we add to the list decisions regarding forestry, greenhouse gases, Arctic drilling, CO2 emissions caps, etc.
So here's the dilemma: as a devoted biker, what's to do on an "ozone action day"? On such days, the conditions are right for forming lots of ground level ozone. Not driving can make a difference in air quality. Seems like a good time to hop on a bike, no? The trouble is, that commuting on a bike puts one right at the source of pollution: near automobile tailpipes. It also turns out that one tends to breathe deeply when riding a bike. Normally this is a benefit, but not when the air is full of ozone. If everyone got out of their cars and onto bikes, then we might make a difference, but if only I and a few other crazies did so, then we'd be punishing ourselves for a good deed, and I'm not so into environmental martyrdom. Maybe the trick is to ride early in the day before the smog forms. Or maybe we should all write letters to our congressmen...
Thanks for reading.

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