Heat And Ozone At Danger Level; Residents Urged To Cut Pollution
By Mohamad Bazzi
Washington had a bad air day yesterday, reaching unhealthful levels of ozone pollution for the second day in a row, and forecasters expected that more of the same hot, unfriendly atmosphere would be around today despite efforts to choke off pollutants.
Yesterday, the temperature at National Airport crested at 97 degrees, three degrees short of the record set for the date in 1954. Forecasters predicted that today's temperature would exceed the record of 100 degrees.
Expecting that the combination of pollutants and hot, stagnant air would cook up a problem yesterday, government agencies activated their Ozone Action Day program. Early on, they urged commuters to take public transit, motorists to avoid daytime refueling, gardeners to defer mowing until evening and homeowners to put off cleanups that would release fumes. Easy for them to say.
Just east of Leesburg, Abraham Mazza took a break on his lawn before spraying a thick coat of lacquer on his handmade cabinets. The air was thick with paint fumes as he wiped the sweat from his brow and scanned a list of Ozone Action Day tips produced by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which monitors air quality. Then he let out a roaring laugh. "Now, that's funny," he said, referring to the "do's and don'ts" intended to reduce ozone formation. "This is hilarious. It's just . . . it's just oppressive."
A gasoline-powered riding lawn mower sat near Mazza's workbench, ready to eat up the excess of his five-acre lawn. "What should I do? Get a goat?" he asked. Faced with such skepticism, several government agencies are trying to set an example for local residents.
To cut back on car use, transit authorities covered the bus fare boxes on more than 200 Metrobus and Ride-On routes in suburban Maryland, allowing riders to travel free throughout the day. The program was promoted yesterday morning on radio and television, and some of the buses carried signs advertising the free rides, which will be available again today.
Mowers in Montgomery County, who normally cut several hundred acres of grass every day, sharply curtailed their activity. At the county incinerator in Dickerson, workers cut back 30 percent on their trash burning. The county's road striping machines, which would normally be out applying paint to the streets, were idle.
Prince George's County also engaged in a "major effort" to postpone a variety of public works activities that might affect air quality, said Sam Wynkoop, director of the Department of Environmental Resources.
"We can seriously make a dent just through our own actions," said Bernard Bloom, air quality program manager for Montgomery County's Department of Environmental Protection. "We think we ought to be doing what we're telling others to do."
As the ozone standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were exceeded, officials declared a "Code Red," advising the young, frail and elderly to stay indoors as much as possible. Sunday and yesterday were the first such days this year. There was only one last summer.
The D.C. Department of Public Works gave a break to about 476 of its employees, ending their day at noon yesterday, because of the heat and poor air quality. The department will follow the same schedule today. Services affected include residential trash collection, street sweeping and street repair.
The Baltimore area also exceeded federal air pollution levels Sunday and yesterday, bringing its total of Code Red days this year to nine. Last summer, the area had only four such days.
Tony Fisher, whose company does lawn maintenance work in Washington, said he kept his 20 workers in yesterday and called 10 clients to cancel. "We don't work on a day like today because of the ozone and the weather," Fisher said. "You can have a stroke or pass out from the heat. It's bad to do any kind of landscaping."
Monitoring private compliance with the ozone guidelines is difficult. Bloom said he believed there was less lawn mowing than usual yesterday. "After all, it's a hot day."
Montgomery County has given out thousands of magnets for lawn mowers reading "Code Red? Leave in the shed." Residents also were encouraged to avoid refueling their cars or, if necessary, to do it after dusk.
One gas station manager reported that business was off slightly. "It has slowed down today," said Sam Chi, manager of the Shady Grove Exxon in Gaithersburg. But he said the slowdown may have had more to do with common sense than compliance with the ozone guidelines. "Maybe because it's so hot, people stayed home," Chi said.
At several gas stations in Washington, a steady stream of drivers pulled in to fill their tanks, either unaware of or unable to avoid the impact of refueling in the middle of a Code Red day.
"I heard about it on the radio this morning," said Virgil Hood, 33, of Olney, as he pumped gas into his Jeep at 18th and U streets NW. "But I need my car for work."
During Washington summers, ozone is the most serious air pollutant. Stagnant atmospheric conditions, with high temperatures and low winds, can lead to a buildup of particles and gases, including ozone, a colorless, orderless gas formed when volatile organic chemicals combine with nitrogen oxides -- mostly from exhaust emissions.
"If it's hot, sunny and there are no clouds or wind, then ozone levels are likely to be high," said Jacquelyn Magnessa Seneschal, COG air quality planning director. Since ozone takes several hours to form, the highest levels are recorded from 3 to 7 p.m.
Alan Nierow, a forecaster at the National Weather Service in Sterling, said there's little possibility of relief from the heat until the end of the week, when rain is expected.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company