[OPINION] The Air We Breathe

Valerie Seiling Jacobs is an attorney and long-time resident of Westport. A former co-chair of Save Westport Now, she currently teaches writing at Columbia University. She recently helped lead the campaign to regulate gas-powered leaf blowers in Westport.

Valerie writes:

In the past week, ozone and fine particulate levels in Westport have repeatedly exceeded the maximum thresholds set by the EPA — in some cases by more than 3 times the recommended level.

This recent bout of pollution is the result of fires in Canada. But it doesn’t change the fact that Westport — indeed, all of Fairfield County — already had a serious air quality problem.

According to a 2022 report issued by the American Lung Association, Fairfield County is one of the most polluted counties in the nation.

Smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed Westport yesterday. (Drone photo/Charlie Scott)

The entire state has a problem. In 2021, there were 21 days where the ozone levels in the state exceeded the healthy level. In 2022, the number jumped to 23.

You might dismiss those numbers as not relevant to our town. But on many of those days, Westport either had the highest levels in the state or tied for first place.

At the rate we’re going, we are almost certain to beat last year’s record.

Both ozone and particle pollution are extremely hazardous to our health. The Lung Association in Connecticut says both “can cause premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm. Particle pollution can also cause lung cancer.”

Officials warn people — especially the elderly, children, pregnant women and those with asthma — to restrict outdoor activities on days when the air quality is bad.

Children are among those warned to restrict activities when the air quality is poor. (Photo/Dave Briggs)

Yesterday, the town finally issued its own warning. But the town doesn’t tell people that the DEEP and other environmental organizations have a long list of other recommendations for such days, including driving less, postponing running energy-demanding appliances, delaying refueling your car, avoiding aerosols, turning up the air conditioner thermostat, avoiding the use of gas-powered gardening equipment, and more.

It’s time for the town to up its game when it comes to the environment.

First, the town needs to help to educate residents about the steps they can take to improve air quality. While it’s true that we cannot avoid the fallout from massive fires or from power plants, we as individuals can take small incremental steps that can have a big collective impact.

Second, the town needs to phase out its own use of gas-powered gardening equipment. At the very least, the town and its vendors should refrain from using gas-powered gardening equipment on days when our ozone or PM2.5 levels exceed, or are projected to exceed, the EPA thresholds.

Other towns have stepped in to protect their citizens. It’s time for Westport to do the same.

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28 responses to “[OPINION] The Air We Breathe

  1. Emily Riley

    Agree!!! Gardening equipment is a change we can all make!

  2. Stefanie Lemcke

    Thank you, as always, Valerie, for educating us and for championing this really important cause. We were disappointed not to see the town of Westport support the new ordinance of gas-powered leaf-blowers on the towns’ own properties. Sustainability and ‘climate neutral’ are nice words, but they require action. You are absolutely right: The town needs to lead in these initiatives – there’s no time to waste the air quality is shockingly bad on ‘normal’ days. It shouldn’t require fires in Canada to remind us of the importance of clan air.

  3. Luke Garvey

    Perhaps Ms. Jacobs and Save Westport Now can drop their opposition to affordable, denser housing development, especially near transportation hubs. This will foster less driving and pollution.

  4. Kristin Schneeman

    This week’s horrendous air quality has been very visible, but Valerie is right to point out that we are living with crummy air quality many days of the year in Westport, especially in the summer, which we can’t usually see but is no less harmful to our health over time. While we can’t entirely control our circumstances here in the I-95 corridor, we also can’t leave the problem to someone else to fix – we need to change the behaviors we can change to help lower overall emissions.

  5. Becky Martin

    Thank you Valerie, for focusing our attention on this health crisis and pointing us towards steps we can take now.

  6. Becky Martin

    Thank you Valerie, for focusing our attention on this health and environmental crisis and providing steps we can take now.

  7. Matt Murray

    The true answer is expressed in this video: https://youtu.be/bOR38552MJA

  8. I agree with Valerie. And while we’re at it we should become a blue ribbon town for gun safety. Town officials seem to have little interest in the horrific traffic that adds to the pollution, environmental issues and gun safety. Perhaps your article will Jim start a change.

  9. Richard Fogel

    Jen Tooker has failed to take the lead. Remember

    • Jamie Walsh

      Hey Richard, can you please stop your partisan crap and personal attacks. They are getting old.

      • Richard Fogel

        So you think I do not have a right to freedom of speech ?

        • Jamie Walsh

          You absolutely have a right to say whatever you want. First amendment is crucial….something that seems to be challenged every day. Just think you might want to mix up your First amendment rights with some different material.
          After all, you appear to be just another “Debbie Downer” keyboard warrior and I am almost sure you will want to have the last word.

          • Richard Fogel

            What leadership position has Tooker taken on Westport clean air ? Has Tooker proposed having a forum by landscaping experts on how to care for grounds wotjout gas powered equipment ? Give us examples how Tooker has influenced 06880 to be responsible guardians of Westport. Please.

      • Jamie,to whom SHOULD Richard look for Westport’s good or bad governmental behavior? The buck does, indeed, stop at town hall.

        • Jamie Walsh

          Dan, I wasn’t referring to anyone specifically. I am referring to civility. Fair and civil debate has become a lost art. So many people want to cast blame instead of suggesting solutions that prompt problem solving compromise.
          Yes, sometimes debate gets heated and we are all human, but we collectively are Westporters and all care for the best interest of our town.

    • Spanky Giddings GFS '82

      Jonathan Steinberg is my man. This little sleepy town of ours has become a bustling small city under the Tooker tenure. Sure Convid and the mass exodus to suburbs from NYC had something to do with it, but it adds to my belief we need a professional city manager running this town-city. Pretty scarfs, ribbon cuttings and a photo op on trip to the Ukraine ain’t cutting (sic) it. This town is beginning to suck.

  10. sarah gross

    Thank you for this attention to reality Valerie – Same lack of town wide concern and action to amend could be said about the quality our water supply as well

  11. Eric Buchroeder

    If as she (Valerie) intimates, there are towns similar to Westport that have implemented successful strategies for environmental responsibility, this info should be made public. It would greatly raise credibility on the issue and remove the excuses.

    • Eric Buchroeder

      Make Westport a walking town unless there’s a handicapped sticker on your windshield. Use the transit system you’ve already got. Watch your BMI drop below 20 and most of all, elect town officials who know how to prioritize.

  12. Mark Mathias

    Here’s a modest proposal. The Town provides school bus services to all students to and from school every day. Yet the lines to drop off and pick up students leads to long lines of cars before and after school, adds to traffic in our Town and, most importantly, consumes fuel that contributes to the pollution of our environment and global warming.

    The proposal is to encourage students to use of school buses rather than private vehicles. The converse is that the use of private vehicles would be not only discouraged, but perhaps even restricted.

    A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation is that 500 gallons of fuel EVERY DAY would be saved by not having private vehicles taking students to and from school.

    I fully realize that this may be less convenient, but making a change that benefits our environment will require us to do things differently than we currently do.

    If we really want to have an impact, we need to start by looking at what WE do in our daily lives. This is one initiative that we can do here and now, in our own community, and would set a clear example of leadership and concern for the environment.

    • Clark Thiemann

      Such a great idea. My mother lives between Saugatuck and Kings Highway and for a couple hours each day the roads in the area are impassible with idling cars waiting for kids (and then watching the buses do the same route back across Westport). I know there are exceptions needed but in most cases the bus should be the go-to.

  13. Ray Broady

    This is something we can learn from this lesson on air pollution from the Canadian wildfires that should really hit your “oh my god” buttons!
    With climate change that is happening NOW, our snowfall and rainfall decreases the entire Northeast is sitting on a powderkeg bomb of wildfire, firestorms! The beautiful scenery of our trees, woods and wetlands only need to go thru one good dry, low humidity and low snowfall/ precipitation and a major wildfire outbreak would start here and with our housing density versus Halifax/Nova Scotia, the death, devastation and human cost in lives would make what is going on in Northeast Canada look like a boy scout campfire!!
    Connecticut has not taken this scenario seriously! If it starts we don’t have the provisions in equipment, trained wildfire fighting methods or specific wildfire management capability to deal with this!
    This my friends and neighbors should scare the hell out of you and sometimes keep you up at night thinking about the possibilty!!
    Let’s put this on a higher priority than our marginal air pollution problems.
    You think it ca’t happen here, then you are a fool. JMHO

  14. Michelle Koh

    Ray, very insightful, informational post. Thank you. In terms of CT’s preparedness, are we ready for the now proven UFO’s and aliens who are among us? What if we are confronted with alien aggressiveness? Is death and destruction far behind?

    You think it ca’t happen here, then you are a fool. JMHO

  15. Edward Bonham

    Some of you have never been to a bonfire, and it really shows.

    Do any of you have a fire pit in your yard? Air quality, right there. Oh no, another ban coming…nothing but opportunists jumping in to get their name out.

    It’s like this everyday in other countries throughout the world, hence, the root cause of the issue. Go there, and you will solve the problem.

  16. Carl Addison Swanson, SHS, 66

    BRAVO TO VALERIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If she had any part in getting rid of these gas powered blowers, super! This town was beginning to sound like a war zone and for a night writer-editor, days need to be quiet. Sheeshhh . . .

    • Eric Buchroeder

      CAS, thanks for bringing your usual “Old Westporter Common Sense” to this leaf blower conundrum.

      I propose that gasoline powered leaf blowers be prohibited in Westport except between sundown and sunrise. We have to be considerate of the work habits of our intellectuals who labor at their keyboards while the selfish among us sleep off our drug induced lassitude.

      I love you Maaan!!!!

  17. Eric Buchroeder

    Make Westport a walking town unless there’s a handicapped sticker on your windshield. Use the transit system you’ve already got. Watch your BMI drop below 20 and most of all, elect town officials who know how to prioritize around their mission critical elected responsibilities.

  18. Susan ISeman

    Stop Idling in your vehicles!!!!