It is ozone season and although many of us would rather ignore the warnings on a nice hot summer day, acting responsibly is necessary. Twenty million people in the U.S. are estimated to have asthma. This includes 6.3 million children. Asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness, and during the past 20 years, the number of school absences due to asthma has more than doubled.

Ever wonder why so many of our children seem to have more allergies than what we experienced? Ozone may be the culprit. A substantial amount of research has verified that ozone can aggravate and even cause asthma. When ozone levels are high, lung capacity is reduced, causing more people to become sensitive to indoor and outdoor allergies, resulting in asthma attacks that require a doctor's attention or the use of additional medication.

There is good news. National ozone concentrations are at the lowest levels since 1980, but the downward trend is slowing. One-hour levels have been reduced by 29% and 8-hour levels by 21%. Ozone levels are still decreasing nationwide, but the rate of decrease for 8-hour levels has slowed since 1990. EPA recently proposed rules to reduce the emission and transport of pollutants that result in ozone, but progress has been slow.

Several years ago, President Bush's Administration began working on a program called the Clear Skies Initiative (CSI). The focus of this program was to supplant significant portions of the existing Clean Air Act by adding a cap and trade program for major air pollutants that are precursors to ozone. The way a cap and trade works is that an area is provided a "cap" on the amount of pollution that can be emitted. The "trade" comes into to play when the polluters in the area work together by trading emission credits amongst each other in a way that makes the most sense for the individual companies. In other words, if a company is expanding they have a choice to either buy pollution control equipment or purchase emission credits. Proponents like these programs because it provides flexibility for achieving pollution reductions. Op-ponents claim the program can lead to pollution "hot spots," and that these spots may reside in already depreciated areas of the country.

Those against the CSI claim that the existing clean air rules would actually accomplish more reductions if only administered correctly. This line of reasoning generally references as main concerns the ineffective enforcement of the New Source Review program and delays in establishing stricter (lower) standards for ozone. This group has had an obvious impact to the CSI. So much so, that President Bush didn't even mention the CSI in his latest State of the Union address and neither legislative chamber has acted, making passage in 2004 highly unlikely. In response to this setback, the EPA is working on another policy called the Clean Air Interstate Rule. It is similar to the CSI, in that it also uses a cap and trade system to reduce the target pollutants. How this program will be spun to rally more support remains to be seen.

The differences in opinion on the processes needed to achieve air quality goals have lead to sluggish progress and less than optimal outcomes since the Clean Air Act Amendments were signed in 1990. However, given the present state of our economy and the continuous reduction of manufacturing jobs from other nations, this may not be a bad thing. In an April 2004 speech by Mike Leavitt, EPA Administrator, he cited Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that U.S. manufacturing companies pay compensation which averages $21.33 an hour, while competing with companies in Singapore that pay $7.27 and hour, Taiwan ($5.41 an hour) and Mexico ($2.38 an hour). Leavitt said, "Without a healthy environment, prosperity can't be sustained. The flip side: without economic competitiveness, environmental investment gets squeezed. Looking abroad, we are reminded that nothing promotes pollution like poverty... This creates an undeniable tension between our environmental aspirations and our economic desires."

In the same speech, Leavitt described the process of pollution reduction as a "generational relay" without end. Therefore, winning simply means making the necessary decisions to stay in the race, even when confronted with the environmental and economic conundrum. The reminder is that with the disarray surrounding clean air, it is prudent to continue our efforts both in the public and private sector and not become detoured; otherwise we risk dropping the baton, and this in an outcome no one likes. IH