We’re Not Quite No. 1

A smoke-filled Okanogan Valley. You can almost make out the hills above.

There’s nothing like a natural disaster to bring out some kind of perverse competitiveness in the best of us. Thus I smiled (weakly) when my town, Omak, was riding high with some of the world’s largest cities in this week’s Washington smoke blog. People were complaining that air pollution across the state—the result of mega fires throughout the Northwest—was “worse than Beijing.” That’s comparing apples with oranges, responded the Department of Ecology’s Ranil Dhammapala.

If you look at a global map of this week’s air pollution, Washington state “probably has the ignoble distinction of being one of the most polluted places” in the world, Dhammapala admits. Yet we in the Northwest suffer smoke pollution only a few weeks out of the year, while cities such as Beijing and New Delhi have unsafe air year-round, especially in winter months. To demonstrate, he posted a color-coded chart detailing air pollution in Beijing, New Delhi, and three Washington population centers: Seattle, Spokane, and Omak.

Omak!? How the heck did this usually ignored, dusty little eastern Washington town (population 4,833) get onto a chart with the likes of Seattle and Spokane, not to mention Beijing and New Delhi—two of the world’s most populated cities?

Here enters perverse competitiveness. New Delhi’s gray stripe and Beijing’s mint green swath show a consistent high level of bad air throughout the year. Well beneath those swaths are three squiggly lines—black for Seattle, blue for Spokane, and a kind of pale cerise for Omak. The lines demonstrate how lovely and clean our air usually is from January until—oops!—August, when the black, blue and cerise go screaming upward like a Cape Canaveral rocket. Seattle makes it a third of the way up, Spokane two-thirds, but only Omak reaches the very top of the chart, right up there with New Delhi.

Well, not quite.

“Delhi records concentrations higher than Omak’s spike, for three months of the year,” wrote Dhammapala. “Omak’s air is unlikely to remain ‘hazardous’ for several months.” 

The past three weeks felt like several months. Nonetheless, we stubbornly ignore health warnings to stay inside, to avoid strenuous activity outside. My neighbors painted their house, I walk the dogs and weed the garden every day while watching people kayaking down the river. Last night I attended an outdoor fund-raising event. I probably would’ve skipped it, but I’d already paid for my ticket, and I wanted to see how many other idiots would attend. There were many of us, including several doctors. Even as we chatted and sipped wine, the air quality monitor was rising from “unhealthy” (red) to “very unhealthy” (maroon). Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow …

Landing in the same league with Beijing and New Delhi probably won’t cheer the Omak Chamber of Commerce. Imagine our slogan: “Why fly halfway around the world when you can simply drive to Omak and breathe the air?”

The Last Straw

fullsizeoutput_1df1For long minutes stretching into eternity, I stared at the grocery store shelf, paralyzed by indecision, conflicted in a war of values. Finally I grabbed a bottle of apple cider vinegar and fled to the next aisle, where my dilemma would only deepen.

Each of us makes dozens of consumer choices daily. Arguably, the smallest choice can represent a large difference. Note the current kerfuffle over plastic straws. My struggle as a consumer is rooted in the thrift that I learned as a child from my late mother. A daughter of the Great Depression, Mother held two ironclad shopping principles: (1) Buy only what’s on sale; (2) If you can’t buy it on sale, buy the cheapest. Every week, Mother pored over the grocery ads in the newspaper. Armed with her list of sale items, she and a friend toured a half-dozen or so grocery stores. Grocers offer loss leaders in hopes that shoppers will also fill their baskets with non-sale items. Didn’t work in Mom’s case. With military discipline, she stuck to her on-sale list. 

I, too, do a pretty good job of sticking to my list—except at Farmers’ Market, where I go kinda crazy. Farmers’ Market represents my own No. 1 rule as a consumer: shop local. I’m a daughter of Earth Day followed by climate change, so rule No. 2 is shop organic, paying special attention to the environment. My crisis of conscience over apple cider vinegar was exacerbated because I’d already abandoned value No. 1. I was at Safeway, a chain operated by a bigger chain, Albertson’s. Usually I shop at the locally-owned Gene’s IGA, but every once in a while I need something not available at Gene’s, like the brand of coffee without which I cannot start my day. See how slippery the slope when we abandon our values?

My mother’s thriftiness reverberated in my soul as I considered my vinegar choices. The price spread was not insignificant: the sixteen-ounce Safeway organic: $2.69; Bragg organic, $4.99. Bragg, of course, boasts that homey, family label that’s been around for a century. A twinge of sentiment there. Further confusing the issue, for just ten cents more than the Safeway organic, I could buy Safeway’s non-organic thirty-two-ounce bottle. That’s nine cents an ounce versus seventeen.

It would take me years to use up a quart of apple cider vinegar. I grabbed the Safeway organic and rounded the corner to pick up a can of tuna, thus jumping from the frying pan into the ocean. Tuna labels tout their brands as saviors of the very species they’re canning. The “Sustainable Seas” brand promises its fish are “100 percent pole and troll caught.” Other labels boast that contents are “Certified Sustainable Seafood” by the Marine Stewardship Council,  “dolphin safe,” and one—“Wild Selections”— had the WWF panda logo. Pandas promoting tuna?! Prices ranged from $1.79 to $4.49—all for the same size can.

I gave up. No tuna sandwich was worth this agony of indecision. Just as well. Later, while checking out the various claims, I ran across advice from the Environmental Defense Fund. Considering the amount of mercury in tuna, says the EDF, buy the can labeled “salmon.”