Just Don't Breathe It

What Houstonians can -- and probably won't -- do to clean up the air they drive through

The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission estimates that in the Houston-Galveston area, petroleum-powered transportation accounts for about 26 percent of polluting emissions, or 279 tons per day. Consumer activities add another 11 percent. Large industry emits 484 tons a day, or 44 percent of the total. More than half -- 52 percent -- of emission reductions are expected to come from large industry. Transportation is scheduled for 26 percent of the reduction goal. Changes in consumer activities are expected to yield just 6 percent of the reductions.

In that mix, solo drivers may seem like a minuscule part of the puzzle. In a way they are, but this program is also an educational process. John Hall, chairman of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, thinks Texans need to see their behavior as part of the pollution problem. "Ordinary citizens have not made the connection between air pollution and the cars they drive," Hall said.

Hall's point man in Houston is John Gillen. Gillen and two -- count 'em, two -- other TNRCC staffers are responsible for ETR in Houston. Gillen is the overseer, regularly making presentations about ETR to area groups. He deals with corporations as they devise their plans. He has received some negative feedback in person, as he talks to local commuters about what they view as the state's new intrusive activity.

"Before, it was putting pollution-control equipment here or issuing a permit or standard exemption there," said Gillen. "We didn't have a lot of impact on you and me as everyday citizens, on our lifestyles. But everything we're coming out with is really going to alter our lifestyles, ETR being one of them."

For those cranky citizens who confront Gillen with protests about how he should be leaving them alone and instead be messing with the real culprits -- the big industrial plants along the Houston Ship Channel -- Gillen has an answer.

"I tell those people: 'We are messing with them. We have been messing with them. We're not relaxing any regulations associated with the petrochemical industry or any industry that has air pollutants. We're tightening the reins in on them continuously.'

"We're messing with other sources because mobile sources make up about 36 or 37 percent of our problem in this area," Gillen said. "As a part of the strategy to control ground-level ozone, you can't rule out reaching out and grabbing whatever you can grab and reducing it."

The reason that state and federal governments are grabbing whatever they can to reduce air-pollution levels is pretty fundamental. There is mounting evidence that air pollutants, both directly and indirectly, contribute to increased sickness and death among the unfortunate citizens who have little choice but to breathe the air available to them. Many researchers link increasing incidence of asthma and other respiratory disorders to the chemical cocktail included in each breath of air.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine questions so-called "safe" levels of air pollution. In a study of six cities over 11 to 16 years, researchers found that even in cities where air quality met federal standards, air pollution likely contributed to higher death rates from lung cancer and cardiopulmonary disease. In this study they measured PM-10s -- particulate matter such as dust, soot and sulfates smaller than ten microns.

The Sierra Club's Neil Carman points to lenient EPA safety levels as the problem. The current "safe" PM-10 level is 150 micrograms per cubic meter, but the study looked at levels above 50 micrograms per cubic meter and found increased mortality -- that means more deaths -- from that level on up.

"Cities all over Texas had levels over 50. Houston had a whole bunch of [readings over 50] last year," said Carman, emphasizing that even though that level was judged not to be in violation, it could still be considered dangerous to your health.

Since diesel emissions are a major source of PM-10s, one way to approach the problem would be to put filters on all diesel-burning buses or to switch to alternative fuels such as natural gas, Carman said.

The ETR program would not directly address the PM-10 problem, but the continuing disagreement between environmentalists and state officials over how to measure air-pollution levels pertains to ground-level ozone as well. The ozone level currently considered safe is 120 parts per billion. In the '70s, it was 80 parts per billion. Carman thinks the newer standard is too high.

"Because so many cities and counties were having compliance problems making people meet the 'speed limit' for ozone, they just said, 'Well, we'll just relax the standard. Since everyone is speeding or since so many communities are speeding, we'll just drop the standard by 50 percent, from 80 to 120.... Even though we know people have health problems over 80 parts per billion, we're going to relax the standards and let things get worse.' That's how I see it. The standard we have now is a very, very poor standard.

"It's like taking a school zone and saying 15 mph is the speed limit, but we're going ahead and bumping it up because people have to get to work and we can't have them slowing down for schoolchildren."

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