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United States


A Change in Seasons

alec vanderboom

I've lived in Washington D.C. for five years. I finally figured out that there is this thing called "air pollution."

For the past five summers, my family has suffered from clogged sinuses, itchy red eyes, sore throats, achy joints, total exhaustion and the general feeling that a mack truck has run over one's body.

I thought it was just allergies. I raised my fist at the innocent cherry blossom trees in total frustration. I blamed the moldy leaves in the Fall and the acres of budding tulips in the Spring.

It turns out, all our symptoms are a result of the air pollution.

Washington D.C. has this rating system called the "air pollution grid" which is a range of colors from green to purple. When the air pollution is at a safe level (a green or yellow day) everyone in my family feels cheerful and mild. When it's Orange (a dangerous level of air pollution for sensitive groups), each of us feels grouchy and miserable. One a red level day (a dangerous level for everyone!) my family feels awful! My kids start start throwing punches and climb the walls. I start to loose my temper at the drop of a pin. My husband wakes up with purple circles under his eyes and suddenly needs 8 cups of coffee before 11 AM. (I've never had an "extremely dangerous" purple day yet, and hope I never see one!)

Since we discovered our city's air pollution index, we've made a strange reversal in seasons.

My husband and I met each other at school in Wisconsin. Up North, the winters are harsh and the cool summers are glorious. Everyone spends 3 months soaking up the sunshine. Even on week days, people garden, ride their bikes around the lake, or go on long canoe rides.

Here in D.C., the winters are mild and the summers are awful. Each morning, I check out the air pollution forecast. On Orange days, I keep my kids inside and my husband rides a bus instead of biking to work. Keeping everyone's exposure during high air pollution days has already made a big difference in the intensity of our symptoms.

It's odd because I thought that insuring that your kids get lots of "fresh air" and exercise time outdoors proved that you were a good mother.

It's ironic that our sensitive bodies make us suffer so much for the "social sin" of air pollution, meanwhile our family's carbon footprint is practically zero since we didn't own and car and use low-emission public transportation.

It feels strange to have cabin fever in the middle of July. We're in the middle of a heat wave and a bad air pollution wave. For the past week, the kids and I have stayed indoors. I made batches of cookies. We painted sea shells. We play imaginary games involving Transformers, plastic cupcakes, and checker boards.

It feels totally weird to keep my kids house bound while the sunshine streams through my bay window.

I have to keep reminding myself that in the South, "summer is the new winter!"