D.C. Air Quality Levels

Another Washington summer is over, as is another season of Washington smog. While this summer's air quality was typical of recent years, many residents got the impression that things have deteriorated. Local activists hyped each smog alert and predicted dire public health consequences, while the news coverage emphasized the Environmental Protection Agency's downgrade of the area's smog status from “serious” to “severe.” <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

But in truth, the air pollution pessimism misses the mark. Washington's air quality is not nearly as bad as claimed, and provisions are already in place that ensure substantial progress in the years ahead.

Overall, there is much positive news. By virtually every measure, the Washington metropolitan area's air is far better today than it was during the 1970s. All of the six so-called criteria pollutants regulated under the 1970 Clean Air Act—carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter (soot), and ozone (smog)—are measurably lower today than in the past. Washington is well within the federal standards for the first five, although a stringent new particulate matter standard will pose an additional challenge once it takes effect. Longtime residents have never experienced better air quality.

The slowest improvement has occurred with ozone, the primary constituent of smog. Despite impressive declines during the 1970s and 1980s, Washington's summer smog levels did not improve nearly enough in the 1990s to comply with the law. The area does not meet EPA's current ozone standard, much less a tougher new one set to take effect next year.

Even so, the air in the nation's capital is better than many have implied. Unlike truly smoggy cities like Los Angeles, Fresno, or Houston, Washington is almost always in compliance with the current ozone standard. Indeed, approximately 99 percent of the daily measurements from the area's 18 monitors show clean air, but EPA throws out all but the worst readings when determining compliance. It's too soon to get complacent about Washington's air quality—especially with the more stringent standard on the way—but there is no cause for alarm, either.

Of course, the numerous Code Orange and occasional Code Red ozone alerts give a very different impression. But Code Orange merely warns us the smog standard may soon be approached, not exceeded. Only Code Red days, of which we experienced two this summer, signal a likely violation. “The ozone standard has a built-in margin of safety, so coming close and only occasionally exceeding it is not a dire public health problem,” notes Kay Jones, a senior adviser to the president's Council on Environmental Quality during the Ford and Carter administrations who helped fashion the system on which the ozone alerts are based.

EPA's downgrade is similarly misleading in that it implies the air has become dirtier and poses a growing health threat. Under the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, metropolitan areas not meeting EPA's ozone standard were classified as either marginal, moderate, serious, severe or extreme, depending on how badly out of compliance they were as of 1989. At the time, Washington's peak smog level was at 165 parts per billion (ppb), which put it in the serious category. The area had until 1999 to meet the standard of 125 ppb or it would be dropped to the next lowest classification.

Washington missed the 1999 deadline, and earlier this year EPA officially reclassified it as severe. But Washington's air did not get worse—and by EPA's way of measuring, it actually improved a little. From 2000 to 2002, ozone was at 131 ppb, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), which coordinates efforts by the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia to implement the Clean Air Act. The downgrade was merely for missing the 1999 deadline.

Fortunately for the area's 5 million residents, help is already on the way. Motor vehicles are the biggest source of the pollutants that cause Washington's smog, and these emissions are declining because of tougher tailpipe standards. “With each new model year, motor vehicles start out and stay cleaner than previous models,” notes Joel Schwartz, adjunct fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. If anything, this progress will accelerate, due to even more stringent EPA emissions standards to be phased in beginning with model year 2004.

These improvements won't be cheap. Your next new car or SUV will be up to 90 percent cleaner than your current one, thanks to an unprecedented level of expensive pollution controls. In addition, federally mandated low-sulfur gasoline (designed to be compatible with these controls) may cost a few cents more per gallon.

Nonetheless, those who see Washington's air pollution as a crisis are demanding even greater sacrifices from the area's residents and businesses. For example, rather than improve the area's chronically congested roads and build new ones, some local activists and officials prefer to keep the traffic problems in place so as to discourage driving, expand public transportation as an alternative, and implement other “smart growth” restrictions on area residents' lifestyle choices. MWCOG is currently working with EPA to revise its implementation plan, and has generally avoided the more onerous options before it.

Cleaner cars and trucks will provide the longer-term fix, but given current smog levels some additional near-term measures are unavoidable. We should choose measures that solve the problem at the lowest cost and the least hassle, and avoid overreacting based on the false premise that Washington's air quality is bad and getting worse.