Monkey can’t see

A young rhesus monkey was exposed to air filled with ozone (smog) for five days in a row and then given regular air for nine days. This cycle was repeated, on him and lots of other monkeys, over a period of five months by scientists from the California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis. The idea was to mimic the effect of exposure to occasional but intense smog, just like we get here in Sacramento.

The young monkey’s lungs became impaired and showed dangerous changes in respiratory development. His lungs grew fewer branches, and healthy tissue growth was stunted. The results of this pioneering study were alarming because they suggested for the first time that early exposure to smog in infant lungs—the respiratory system of humans and monkeys are quite similar—not only causes damage but also can cause long-lasting, irreversible damage.

Well, you’d think a study with results like that would have shaken up business as usual and created a climate in which politicians and public-health officials had no choice but to take drastic steps to diminish air pollution. After all, a recent poll pointed toward air pollution being the biggest concern for Californians. But change doesn’t seem to work that logically.

The results of the monkey smog study were released four years ago. Yet, only a few months ago, the Sacramento region received another “F” grade for awful air. Yes, the Sacramento region continues to rank among the national top 10 (we’re No. 7!) on the American Lung Association’s roster of cities with ultra-dangerous levels of smog. We are—especially in the summer—breathing poisonous air. And so are our children.

Some positive actions have been taken. Air-quality experts in our region have created innovative programs (many of them are voluntary) to tackle the pollution that comes from cars and industry. Sacramento Regional Transit has replaced more than half of its dirtier diesel buses with 136 compressed-natural-gas (CNG) buses. The Sacramento school-bus consortium has acquired 43 CNG school buses. And the city of Sacramento and the counties of Sacramento, Yolo and Solano have adopted policies to voluntarily replace or re-power garbage trucks to low-emission technologies.

But it’s not nearly enough. Because most of our smog comes from car emissions, it’s crucial that our leaders deal with air pollution as a regional growth and transportation issue. As smart-growth advocates have said for years, we should be growing in a manner that discourages sprawl by building along public-transit corridors and by vastly improving public-transportation options.

Somehow, we’ve continued doing pretty much the opposite.

What will it take for us to change? Do we need children to suffer?

We need to grow smart and continue reducing emissions. We need to push for cleaner transportation alternatives and cleaner fuels. Mostly, we need to remember what all that smog did to the monkey and face the truth that it’s doing the same to us and our children.