We Are What We Breathe
Commissioner Tommy Adkisson
October 7, 1999
If we are what we eat, are we not likewise what we breathe? Until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) makes a formal determination as to the attainment or non-attainment status of San Antonio, we remain the largest U.S. City with air quality in compliance with the Federal Clean Air Act. But for some time now, our city has been hurling into non-attainment status.
The reason I use the word hurtling is because it just seems that a lot of talk has produced so little effective action that could avoid the "hammer"of noncompliance. This is not to suggest that nothing has been done to attempt to address this problem. On the contrary, it is perhaps to suggest the magnitude of the problem and the difficulty of changing our bad habits of polluting, to a great extent with our beloved automobiles.
All of us who have been living here in San Antonio for a long time remember the fresh smell of early morning. Might we regain that place in time when we anticipated a deep breath of clean air in the morning? Must "progress" exact such a toll as to literally steal our clean breath away?
I think not and hope that you agree. Now then, what do you and I do in order to regain our fresh air, and simultaneously avoid the painful non-attainment status of the EPA? Most importantly, how do we ensure that we are living in an area that is not hazardous to our health, respiratory or otherwise?
Dr. John Merrifield, Associate Professor of Economics with the Metropolitan Research and Policy Institute (MRPI) of the University of Texas at San Antonio in his May 1999 report entitled, "Air Quality: How to Keep San Antonio's Attainment Status", states that the most urgent need is a public education campaign. So let us begin!
Ozone seems to be a key culprit in our local air quality scene. Ozone occurs almost exclusively in the hotter days of April through October when the winds are very light. On these ozone action days (OZADS), the ability of pollutants to migrate to San Antonio is minimal. In other words, on ozone action days, we must accept responsibility for our own conduct in contributing to the decline of air quality.
Before discussing the emission reduction opportunities and policy recommendations or solutions to our ozone problems, let us consider what the research shows regarding the health effects of ozone. In April 1999, Sonoma Technology, commissioned by the Mayor of Houston, released its "Assessment of the Health Benefits of Improving Air Quality in Houston, Texas.
The Assessment state: "Approximately 60 epidemiological studies that investigated the effects of ozone on adult populations and 15 epidemiological studies that investigated ozone effects on children were evaluated in this study. Most of the studies report acute health effects for ozone. We found sufficient evidence and were able to establish concentration-response functions for evaluating benefits related to:
- Chest symptoms (wheeze and phlegm production)
- Eye irritation
- Chest congestion
- Throat irritation
Dr. Merrifield further tells us in his report that vehicles such as cars, trucks, buses, and heavy equipment accounts for a significant share of San Antonio's emissions, especially on OZADS. He cites other studies finding that 10% of the vehicles ("gross emitters") in their survey were responsible for over half of the key emissions. The Report and Recommendations of the Mayor's Air Quality Advisory Group (11/15/98) defines a "gross emitter" as a car that emits 5-10 times the pollution of an average car. The Mayor's Advisory Group further found that 70-80% of automotive emissionions could come from 20% of the cars on the road.
The "How to Keep San Antonio's Attainment Status" Report recommends as an imperative, minimizing the time gross emitters are on the road on ozone action days. The following can be ways of doing this:
- Repair gross emitters
- Scrap gross emitters
- Stop importation of gross emitters
- Reduce congestion, so all vehicles (especially gross emitters) get where they're going more quickly.
- Discourage or prohibit use of gross emitters on OZADs.
The Report goes on to state that the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) has a SMOG Hotline 800/453-SMOG. When a smoking vehicle license plate is reported, the owner gets a notice. Under current law, the recipient of the notice can ignore it. However, according to TNRCC's Barbara Young, 32% of the notice recipients reported making repairs. It is estimated that this reduces the gross emitters by thousands.
In short, this should begin to give you some idea of what our community faces in the way of fixing the air pollution problem. Reserved for another article are the costs of non-attainment and the nature and extent of the challenges to our health found in fine particulate mater. Finally and as always, I invite your comments on air pollution or other issues of concern to you.