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Don't Breathe The Yellow Air - A Commentary

By Jennifer Nagorka, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – The air in North Texas last week was so yellow and thick it was like being in Denver when the wind shifted and blew smoke from forest fires into town. Breathing in that murky air was like drinking water straight out the Trinity River - pretty darn disgusting.

A combination of haze, ozone, pollen, dust, particulates and other junk commonly clouds our summer air. So far this season, we've already had four "level red" alerts - days when pollution made the air unhealthy for anyone who breathed it. That's as many red alerts as we had in all of 2000, and two more than we had last year.

Every year, we hear the same ozone warnings. Every year, people gripe about the summer smog. But almost no one I meet commits to helping solve the problem. And this is a problem that only individuals can solve because individuals create it.

Almost half of North Texas' ozone pollution comes from cars and trucks of all types. So if you drive, you are part of the problem. Off-road combustion engines, such as those in lawnmowers and gas string trimmers, contribute their share, too. We as individuals, just going about our daily lives, cause about half of the area's air pollution problem.

But there's a more positive way to look at the situation. If you drive, you can be part of the solution. It doesn't require grand gestures and painful sacrifices. You just have to be willing to do your part, and make an occasional, small adjustment in behavior.

This summer, I'm trying to go at least one day a week without driving. When I still ended up with a Friday meeting, after having already driven for four days straight, I carpooled with my husband and then walked the three miles home. That was my exercise for the day, instead of running three miles.

When I had to buy a new car, we bought a fuel-efficient one - never less than 40 mpg on the highway. It's a sweet, safe sedan that comfortably seats four, runs like a clock, and handles well. We're not suffering when we drive it.

My husband has an aging Jeep Cherokee. When it's time to replace that vehicle, we won't buy a full-size SUV or pickup, because those don't meet the same fuel efficiency standards as passenger cars. And we don't need a truck. I occasionally haul lumber and garden supplies, and a station wagon with a luggage rack can handle those tasks. In this highly urbanized area, SUVs and pickups are just fashion statements for commuters - fashion statements that happen to be especially hard on the environment.

There are a dozen painless ways to help clean the air. Don't keep the car idling after you've parked; turn off the engine and roll down the windows. Use a broom and rake instead of a gas-powered leaf blower. Walk to lunch instead of driving. Don't top off the gas tank at the gas station.

Nobody wants mandatory restrictions on driving or any other activity, and nobody loves filthy air. The way to prevent both is with individual responsibility and voluntary action. We created the problem; we can solve it.

Jennifer Nagorka is a writer based in Dallas.