When Richard Milhous Nixon, arguably one of our most liberal recent presidents, signed the legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, skies over many American cities were nearly as polluted as those over today’s Beijing.
Ozone, nitrogen oxides and particulates combined to create opaque, soupy air that endangered public health. Living in Los Angeles or Houston when the air was particularly bad was like living in an oil refinery, complete with foul smells and eye-stinging pollution.
During winter temperature inversions, “brown clouds” hovered above both Denver and Colorado Springs, thick lenses of polluted air that often remained for many days.
Ask longtime residents and they’ll remember.
The EPA went to work. New regulations forced operators of stationary sources such as power plants to reduce NOx, SOx and particulate emissions while automobile manufacturers were required to comply with stringent new anti-pollution mandates.
In Colorado Springs, most alleys were paved, and city ordinances banned trash and leaf burning. The skies cleared, the brown cloud faded away, the feds focused on the impact of carbon emissions on global climate change and no one much worried about air quality — because we’d taken care of that, right?
Not entirely. For several days last week and early this week, our skies were obscured by smoke from wildfires in Washington state. Such hazy days have become common occurrences during fire season, as smoke plumes from fires throughout the West drift into the Pikes Peak region.
Even in relatively low concentrations, it’s dangerous stuff. On Sunday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment issued a wildfire smoke health advisory for Denver and most of northeast Colorado. If smoke seems especially thick, you’re advised to stay inside, limit outdoor activity or go somewhere else. People with heart disease, respiratory illnesses, the very young and the elderly were warned to be especially careful.
During four of these days, I pedaled my road bike early in the morning through the Westside, across U.S. Highway 24 and up Gold Camp Road. Five miles up, the grand vista of city and plains had vanished in the yellowish haze. The rising sun cast no shadow.
It was déjà vu all over again — the brown cloud was baaack!! Later that day, reading CDPHE’s alert, it occurred to me that I should have stayed home like an obedient elder.
What was in the smoke?
That’s a good question. The answer depends upon the composition of the burn.
Unlike power plants and tailpipe emissions, wildfires can’t be made to conform to federal mandates.
We need more monitors.
According to a 2014 study by the BC Centre for Disease Control, an agency of the British Columbian provincial government in Canada, “The main components of wildfire smoke are particulate matter, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, mercury, ozone, and pollutant mixtures. Health effects associated with wildfire smoke range from eye, nose, or throat irritation to reduced lung function, bronchitis, exacerbation of asthma, and increased risk of death.”
An “increased risk of death” certainly qualifies as a health risk. Is there any way for Springs residents to find out whether our latest brown cloud was particularly lethal?
Probably not, since there are only three air pollution monitoring sites in the city.
“PM10 and PM2.5 [particles of less than 10 and less than 2.5 microns in diameter] are large components of wildfire haze,” wrote Evergreen environmental consultant Maureen Barrett in a recent email. “PM2.5 is so small that it is generally invisible to the naked eye. However, the light scattering that occurs among these very small particles is likely contributing to this hazy effect.”
Those tiny particles lodge in our lungs, stay there and cumulatively affect our health.
“The state [www.colorado.gov/airquality/report.aspx] allows us to see the monitors,” Barrett continued. “Our three sites are Colorado College (monitors PM), Manitou (monitors ozone), and Highway 24 (monitors SO2 and CO). That’s it for our whole city! By the way, we had a dozen more monitors in the past, which have all been taken down.”
Once the region was determined to be in compliance with various state and federal air quality standards, the monitors were no longer required. Pollution events that originate from elsewhere, such as plumes from forest fires, are unpredictable — but that doesn’t mean that their effects aren’t significant.
So maybe we ought to install a few more monitors. Looking out over the city from Gold Camp Road, I wondered what Eddie Murphy might say.
“Who you gonna believe? Those three little monitors, or your lyin’ eyes?”