"What color are we today?" my older daughter asks as she saunters to the kitchen table every morning. The color-coded air quality chart on The Times' weather page is often the first thing on her mind.
I always feel dreadful when I answer "orange." It is a response I've had to give a lot lately. She moans. The orange code means "unhealthful for sensitive people," and my daughters, ages 2 and 5, certainly fall into that category.
How much poisonous air can such little lungs handle? Not much. A recent study done at USC found that children living in the Inland Empire had a significantly reduced lung capacity compared with children living in the mountains or by the sea.
The smog level is at its worst since we moved here six years ago. You can see it, brown and thick. And you can feel it: sore throats, irritated eyes and buzzing headaches. And yet there are more Hummers and SUVs on the road every day, adding to the pollution.
One would think that smog is a social issue like child abuse or drunk driving that would be universally condemned. What politician would want to "protect" smog or fight for the rights of smog producers? Doesn't everyone agree that poisoned air is bad, that whatever produces it is detrimental to our children's health?
And yet many politicians, rather than fight to protect children's lungs, fight to protect smog producers. Like one who appoints a fox to guard the henhouse, President Bush has nominated for chief of the Environmental Protection Agency a man who wants to weaken pollution standards. Something must be done.
Major newspapers and magazines should regularly publish lists and profiles of the largest polluters in Southern California: the company names, their products, the names of directors on their boards and the names of the politicians they donate money to.
There should be one standard to rate new cars on their environmental impact, and high polluters should be penalized with a significant fee that would go toward public health care and environmental programs.
If we can spend billions to occupy and rebuild Iraq, surely there must be more that can be allocated for alternative, cleaner sources of transportation.
There are many additional ideas for cleaning our air. But those who make money at the expense of our air will do all they can to elect politicians who protect their assets. The rest of us need to elect politicians who protect our air.
It is a sick era when "environmental terrorist" is a label used for people who destroy Hummers and fight urban sprawl, rather than the people who daily poison our air and the politicians who aid and abet their assault on our children's lungs.
Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology at Pitzer College.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times