THE PARKAS are off, the skateboards in flight, the scooters racing through cul-de-sacs. Spring is here. Can Code Red be far behind?
They did not have these ozone-alert days when I was growing up. Springtime balminess was simple perfection. It was time to dally in the schoolyard, to be alert for nothing more sinister than tricks that might stretch out recess.
Now in a month or maybe just weeks, word will come home that the kids weren't allowed outside for recess at all, and the end-of-school picnic may well be cancelled. Code Red.
That means there's too much pollution in the air, stewed into an even unhealthier brew by too much heat from global warming.
Code Red days are coming again soon to a playground near you - days when it's too risky to go out and be a kid.
Air pollution used to be the moral equivalent of cholesterol. No one questioned its harmful effects, or balked at doing something about them.
The pollution is still here. The political will is not.
The White House has made pollution control a sometime thing. One day the Bush administration says it will abide by the recent Supreme Court ruling that upheld tougher air pollution rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency under Bill Clinton. The next, it sets out to undercut them by loosening current rules that require old, coal-burning power plants - already exempted from most Clean Air Act requirements - to meet more stringent pollution controls when they are expanded.
"No other single source of pollution poses so much danger to health and the environment as do coal-burning power plants," the American Lung Association says in its 2001 report on the state of the air.
The national parks are choking; gems like Yellowstone clouded by exhaust from snowmobiles (the administration may abandon proposed Clinton-era restrictions on them.) The Great Smoky Mountains are smoked: Air pollution from nearby power plants endangers 30 species of plant life in that park.
And now that we do business in smoke-free cubicles instead of smoke-filled rooms, here is news from the Journal of the American Medical Association: Air pollution is just about as bad for you as tobacco smoke. After a 20-year study, researchers concluded that current levels of airborne soot caused by cars, trucks, coal-fired plants and factories are about as dangerous as living with a smoker. This kind of "second-hand" smoke causes cancer, too.
If foreign enemies were systematically killing 50,000 to 100,000 Americans a year, as scientists say air pollution does, you know what the government would do. It would waste no time, spare no cost, brook no discussion about the relative upsides and downsides of stopping it. What corporate lobbyist would dare stand in the way?
Pollution is a bioterror attack upon ourselves. And our elected officials choose not to pursue those responsible.
The Senate, controlled by Democrats, just rejected perhaps the most easily understandable anti-pollution measure at hand, a proposal to tighten fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks, such as SUVs. Lobbyists for the auto industry and its unions got their way.
The Bush administration, under court order, finally released those reams of paper that everybody knew would show its burn-baby-burn energy policy was written with the advice and consent of the energy industry. Now it is proved. Scores of industry lobbyists were in on meetings with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. Consumer and environmental groups were out.
We tire of the plotline: Fat-cat donors and ideological soulmates get their way. Everyone else gets to get sick.
Attitudes about pollution haven't changed, said Janice Nolen, the lung association's national policy director. More than 80 percent of the public consistently says it wants to get tough on air pollution. Yet we've gone soft on politicians who won't.
Those Code Red days aren't an inconvenience. They're a warning that illness is in the air.
The Washington spat over energy and environmental policy, which resumes next week when Congress returns from spring break, isn't just a matter of politics. This really is a matter of life, and breath.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.