Cleaning up Chicago’s air quality

By Contributing Writer

by: Brandon Smith, Contributing Writer

Chicago is getting close to having no violations of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current air quality standards.

But the standards, which the city has still not quite met, were set in 1990 and are “woefully outdated,” according to the American Lung Association, the leading health organization working to improve lung health. The news came during a Feb. 1 public meeting held at the ALA’s Chicago headquarters at 55 W. Wacker Drive.

“We’re not done yet,” said Peter Iwanowicz, the ALA’s assistant vice president. “Just as a physician wouldn’t tell you to stop a course of antibiotic in the middle of a treatment.”

A broad audience, including members from the business community and environmental activists as well as representatives of Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, gathered to hear the status of the ALA’s Healthy Air Campaign to help defend the Clean Air Act and push public officials to better enforce current pollution laws.

“We think it’s important that our government representatives are certainly aware of the issues and the perspectives that are coming from the public health side of our work,” said Harold Wimmer, ALA’s president of the Upper Midwest.

The Clean Air Act, the proverbial sword and shield of the ALA’s fight for healthier air, was enacted by Congress in 1970 and has helped reduce national air pollution by 60 percent.

“For us, this campaign is really about the coming together of health interests, pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to do something that many groups have pushed them for a number of years to do,” Iwanowicz said.

According to Illinois EPA Director Maggie Carson, there are dozens of pollutants that affect air quality, making it difficult to have a set air quality standard. She said air

quality is measured by an Air Quality Index, the national standard national method for reporting air pollution levels by ranking quality from “good” to “hazardous.”

“Each toxin has its own standard of measurement,” Carson said. “There is particulate matter which you can see and touch, but there are also various gases in the air.”

A 2010 Illinois Annual Air Quality Report released by the IEPA showed that Chicago’s air quality has consistently stayed within the “good to moderate” range.

A dramatic note was struck during the meeting when Dan Dolan Laughlin, a longtime ALA volunteer, gave a personal account of his battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary

disease, an incurable lung condition.

“I was going to take the train in today, but walking through the train shed is just about bad enough to make me pass out,” Laughlin said, as the movements of his mouth were veiled by his breathing mask.

According to a 2010 report released by the EPA, 160,000 premature deaths occurred nationally because of respiratory conditions caused by unhealthy air.

Significant obstacles remain, but there are reasons for optimism, Iwanowicz said.

“There are people in Los Angeles who wake up and realize now that there are mountains that you can see from downtown LA,” he said as he noted the change since 1970.

According to the ALA, if emission standards are not improved by 2020, the U.S. will be seeing an upward of 230,000 annual premature deaths caused by respiratory problems.