WASHINGTON - When I decided to take my child out of day care for the summer in order to have more time with him, I eagerly anticipated the wonderful things we could do together outside during the warmer weather. I thought about visits to playgrounds and the zoo, walks around the neighborhood, bike rides and dips in our backyard wading pool.
Unfortunately, those dreams have turned out to be more fantasy than reality.
In checking the daily forecasts for pollution, I have learned that air quality in Washington is so poor that public advisories regularly recommend that I keep my son indoors for much of the day. At times, my home seems like a cage for my curious, jet-propelled toddler.
For the first time, I am seeing how America's disregard for the environment has a direct impact on my family's quality of life. Instead of thinking we must compromise our lifestyle to preserve the environment, I now know that we are compromising our quality of life by not protecting the environment.
America has gotten more sophisticated regarding air quality. Each day, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) informs the public about local air pollution levels.
Code Orange is used to label days when the air is unhealthy for active kids. Code Red is used for days the air is unhealthy for everyone. During the first two weeks of summer, air quality was unhealthy nearly 40 percent of the time in the Baltimore/Washington area; the three days preceding the official beginning of summer were Code Orange.
About 15 percent of the summer was Code Red or Orange.
The EPA's Air Quality Index (AQI) translates the potential health effects of exposure to ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. In winter, carbon monoxide from vehicles is usually the cause of poor air quality; in summer, ground-level ozone, mostly from cars, power plants and factories, is generally the culprit.
Excessive exposure to these pollutants can seriously hurt lung development and respiratory function. They also reduce U.S. agricultural productivity by about $500 million annually, render lakes and streams unable to support aquatic life and damage trees and forests.
Air quality has generally improved in the last 20 years. Domestic toxic emissions decreased by about 23 percent between 1990 and 1996. Emissions of most of the pollutants tracked by the AQI have decreased significantly.
At the same time, however, in 1999, 62 million people lived in counties where the EPA judged the air to be unhealthy. The public is advised not to eat fish from approximately 2,500 bodies of water because of elevated chemical levels. And greenhouse gas emissions, which could have serious implications for health, agricultural productivity and environmental quality if climate change accelerates, rose more than 18 percent between 1990 and 1997. The numbers are distressing. The effects on our lives are more alarming.
It doesn't have to be this way. Not all countries allow environmental degradation to lower their quality of life to the same extent. Levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide are lower in Paris, Tokyo and London than they are in New York. While emissions of greenhouse gases per person declined by 1 percent in the United States between 1980 and 1997, they declined by 35 percent in France, 37 percent in Sweden, and 15 percent in Britain.
In discussing the nation's energy strategy, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have declared that we shouldn't have to compromise our lifestyle to preserve the environment. Now it looks as if the administration and Congress will basically maintain current fuel efficiency standards and loosen emissions limits on power plants. They all miss the point. In harming our environment, we sacrifice our quality of life.
Polls indicate that Americans think environmental protection is important, particularly when degradation threatens public health. Perhaps it's because they experience what I am experiencing this summer. Americans will accept regulation if it means their kids can play outside without the risk of cancer or asthma.
The president, vice president and Congress are right when they say that Americans deserve a high quality of life. What they don't seem to understand is that uncontrolled pollution does more to degrade our quality of life than does environmental protection.
Carla Koppell was deputy assistant secretary of international affairs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration and managed the U.S. Agency for International Development's Climate Change Program. She lives in Washington.