10/25/2011 07:59 pm ET | Updated Dec 25, 2011

The Long, Hot Summer And Code Red Days

The once-dreaded idiomatic expression "the long, hot summer" regained a literal patina or shade of meaning during the summer months of 2011. Cities are no longer "aflame in the summer time," and even the venerable Farmers' Almanac predicted it would be a white-hot summer. Across these United States, it was the hottest summer in 75 years, and the second-warmest summer on record, the National Climatic Data Center has confirmed. It was also the fifth-hottest summer in the Northern Hemisphere since scientists began compiling such climatological records 132 years ago.

Well, you don't have to "know much about a science book," or global climate change, to realize our summers are hotter than ever before. Yet, there has been a significant reduction in the amount of pollution caused by automobiles in the Washington metro region. That's a major milestone, since the smog standards are now more stringent than ever before for the average concentrations of ozone at ground level over an eight-hour period.

This is vital and paramount because 1.5 million people who live and move and have their being in the Washington-Baltimore region fall within the sensitive groups impacted by unhealthy air quality. They suffer from heart and respiratory ailments, including asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. So, whenever pollutants and/or high air temperatures in the region surpass the national standard for safe or healthy air quality, local officials declare such events "Code Red Days" or "Code Orange Days." When this occurs, agencies and the American Lung Association caution sensitive groups, including children and older adults, to avoid "prolonged outdoor exertion" and everyone else to "limit prolonged outdoor exertion."

Keep in mind, Washington (which really wasn't built on a swamp) sweltered in a protracted heat wave all summer long. But myth aside, the town had all the seeming of a primordial slough back in July. That's because July 2011 holds the distinction of being the "hottest month in recorded history" in Washington, D.C. As it turns out, July had 25 days where the mercury soared to 90 degrees or above. Warmer than your mother's oven on Thanksgiving morning, three of those days had Fahrenheit temperatures above 100 degrees. In contrast, June registered ten 90-degree days. During the sultry days of August, the region racked up 12 such days.

Yet by dint of the overall number of unhealthy ozone days, the metro area registered only two Code Red Air Quality Days and 19 Code Orange Air Quality Days during the sultriest days of summer. That's according to preliminary data compiled by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG).

If records were meant to be broken, last year was the region's hottest summer ever. Even so, during the 2010 Ozone Season, the region recorded only three Code Red Air Quality Days as June turned to July, and then into August. "But on two of those days, only one out of 14 active air quality monitors indicated Code Red air quality, and on the third day only two monitors registered a violation," exults the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance (NVTA).

The region also recorded 30 Code Orange Day during the dog days of the summer of 2011, according to the Clean Air Partners. However, on the "average Code Orange day nearly 80% of the region's monitors did not record a violation," the NVTA notes.

Compare that to the region's track record back in the summer of 1998, when we suffered from 6 Code Red Days and 49 Code Orange Days, according to data from the Clean Air Partners. Yet the clean air standard is higher now than it was in 1998. Still, the region had fewer unhealthy air days during 2010 and 2011, than it did a decade and a half ago.

In 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) replaced the one-hour standard and set into place the eight-hour standard set at 84 parts per billion (ppb), explains Kyle Hosley of Clean Air Partners. In 2008, over the protests of some elected officials and business interests, the EPA actually tightened the smog standard -- the eight-hour National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ground-level ozone -- setting it at 75 ppb.

To protect the health of the public and the environment, the EPA calculates the Air Quality Index (AQI) for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act. These are: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Two of these pollutants -- ground-level ozone and airborne particles -- pose the greatest threat to human health.

Credit stronger environmental safeguards, and reductions in air pollution emissions, for clearing the air and for reducing the number of unhealthy ozone days in the Washington metro area and other parts of the country, scientists say. Though 35.4% of households in Washington, D. C. proper do not own a car, the region has just shy of four million registered vehicles. Under the mandates of the Federal Clean Air Act, those local vehicles, which are cleaner, are required to burn cleaner summer fuel blends designed to cut down on smog in the Washington metro area.

And it is working wonders. To further reduce tailpipe emissions, the nation's fleet of cars, pickup trucks, mini-vans and SUVs since 2004 has become 77 to 95 percent cleaner than older models, notes the EPA. As a result, automobile emissions are no longer the primary source of summertime ozone smog. Other factors have also dramatically improved air quality in the region, including the public's growing demand for cleaner-burning power plants, and other technological advances.

So here is the upshot. Overall, the number of "exceedance days" is decreasing across the region, although the ozone standard is more difficult to meet. The region is making great strides on this front, though much work remains to be done. Still, some Capitol Hill denizens have lost sight of this and there is a growing chorus in Congress to defund the EPA.

For a certain element in Washington and the states, the agency has been a bête noire for more than four decades since its inception on December 3, 1970. Ever the red-headed stepchild in the minds of some, the agency, ironically, was the brainchild of President Richard Nixon. Yet the EPA has established national air quality standards and the program is improving the quality of life in the Washington metro area. This is as clear as the air we now breathe even on the days declared Code Red Air Quality Days and Code Orange Air Quality Days.

For all its huffing and puffing about the EPA, Congress should gaze a few blocks down North Capitol Street to the headquarters of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). It houses the offices of the Clean Air Partners. Yonder it will find over 2,900 businesses, employers, and individuals across the Washington-Baltimore region working in concert to reduce the number of unhealthy air days. They are registered as Clean Air Partner participants.

The empirical evidence stands. Air quality in the region has improved over the past decade, Clean Air Partners say. Instead of holding its breath until it's blue in the face, Congress should just exhale. And then inhale.