Last week’s heat wave delivered more than just uncomfortably warm temperatures to the Pacific Northwest. The heat was accompanied by a haze that obscured sunsets and mountain vistas while causing puffy eyes and scratchy throats for many residents.
With a combination of heat, smoke from wildfires, and daily emissions from automobiles and industries, air quality throughout the region was diminished. And while the perfect storm of factors was largely unavoidable — namely, the heat and the wildfires — it served as a reminder of the need to manage the factors that are within our control.
Not all that long ago, American cities frequently were shrouded in smog. A 1966 smog event in New York City generated attention for the importance of air quality, leading President Lyndon Baines Johnson to say: “’Ordinary’ air in New York, as in most large cities, is filled with tons of pollutants: carbon monoxide from gasoline, diesel and jet engines; sulfur oxides from factories, apartment houses, and power plants; nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and a broad variety of other compounds. These poisons are not so dramatically dangerous most days of the year. … But steadily, insidiously, they damage virtually everything that exists.”
Congress quickly passed the 1967 Air Quality Act and followed that with the 1970 Clean Air Act. In December 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established under President Richard Nixon.
For nearly 50 years, Americans have embraced their duty to be stewards of the earth, recognizing the irreversible damage that can be caused by inadequate environmental protections. Laws have been passed to make gasoline cleaner; regulations have been enacted to limit industrial emissions.
So, it is notable that 15 states last week — Washington and Oregon among them — filed a legal challenge over federal attempts to roll back rules designed to reduce smog-causing pollutants. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt had announced Aug. 1 an extension of deadlines for compliance with the 2015 Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards. As New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said, “Yet again, the Trump EPA has chosen to put polluters before the health of the American people.” The day after the announcement to delay, Pruitt backpedaled and said the deadlines would stand.
Pruitt’s delay came as Republicans in Congress are pushing for a rewriting of the rules. Significantly, more than one dozen major health organizations are opposing these efforts. Poor air quality can affect the health of people with heart or lung conditions, lead to lifelong asthma in children, and result in wheezing and coughing for otherwise healthy people.
Air pollution was an unavoidable way of life some 45 years ago. Last week’s brief experience with poor air quality was a reminder that we must be diligent to avoid returning to those bad old days.