State's air quality: a success story

In today's media-saturated environment, success never gets as much coverage as failure. But Washington has accomplished something we should all be proud of.

In August, Wallula, a small town near the Tri-Cities, became the last community in our state to achieve "attainment," complying with all the air quality standards set by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). Earlier, Spokane ended a decades-long struggle by successfully meeting federal air quality standards for carbon monoxide and dust.

For the first time ever, the entire state of Washington meets all the health-based national air quality standards.

That is no easy feat. EPA first adopted air quality standards in the early 1970s, setting levels for a variety of pollutants. The great untold story is that, despite significant population growth and a big increase in the number of vehicle miles traveled, we have succeeded in cleaning up our air.

When we think about air pollution, most people envision industrial smokestacks belching black smoke. In the 1950s that was true, but today industry has "cleaned up its act" to the point that industrial emissions account for only 4 percent of pollution statewide.

Today, cars and trucks are the biggest problem, accounting for 49 percent of our air pollutants, followed by off-road vehicles (20 percent) and wood stoves (13 percent). As the pollution focus has shifted to vehicles, the industry has responded with cleaner cars, cleaner gasoline and improvements as simple as equipping gas pumps with collars that capture fuel vapors.

But that is not the case in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries. For example, Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, has 9-million people and is projected to grow to about 16 million by year 2015, making it the seventh largest mega city in the world.

Motorized rickshaws with two-stroke engines and no exhaust emission controls along with heavy-duty diesel buses and trucks are the dominant air pollution sources in that metropolis.

In Bangladesh, it is legal to burn leaded gasoline - a product that EPA banned many years ago. Leaded gas, a large number of high polluting vehicles, impure fuels, inefficient land use and overall poor traffic management combine to form particulate matter, dust, oxides of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide, which fouls our atmosphere and their citizens' lungs.

Air pollution levels in Dhaka are considerably higher than Bangladeshi standards or World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for residential areas. Airborne contaminants are linked to premature deaths from respiratory and cardio-vascular illnesses and higher rates of sickness, especially bronchitis.

The increasing air pollution impedes Bangladesh's development. A growing number of people cannot work because of poor health.

While many of our transportation arteries are clogged in the Puget Sound region and the Portland-Vancouver metro area, our average healthy citizen does not have to walk down the street wearing masks and respirators just to breathe.

Traffic jams are growing problems that we cannot ignore, but we just can't park our cars or trucks and solve the problem. Turning the clock back to the preindustrial agrarian times when garbage, sewerage, wood smoke and even methane from workhorses dirtied our air is not an option. Nor is another heavy dose of federal, state or local regulation.

The truth is, we can never create a world where there is no pollution. Mount St. Helens will erupt again, and there will be large forest fires in the Rocky Mountains. Both will fill the stratosphere with clouds of ash, smoke and polluting gases. And, as long as we are around, we exhale carbon dioxide (a principal greenhouse gas) when we breathe, and we kick up dust when we walk.

We ought to do as much as we can to eliminate pollution while keeping in mind that nature has its own sources. We cannot regulate our farms, businesses and industries to the point where they will be replaced by the competition in places like Bangladesh where there are virtually no pollution standards.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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