"SAY, DO I SMELL baking bread?"
"Why, yes, you do, officer. I have a few loaves in the oven right now."
"In that case, you'd better come with me. I'm arresting you for violating the Clean Air Act of 1990."
It hasn't happened yet. But the day grandma gets thrown in jail for baking bread is coming, just wait and see. Insane as it may sound, government regulators have now decreed the aroma of baking bread to be a form of air pollution.
From the Wonder Bread factory in Natick to Mrs. Baird's Bakeries in Fort Worth, Texas, large bakers across the country are being forced to buy "catalytic oxydizers" -- 18,000-pound, pickup truck-sized emission control devices -- for their ovens. The Environmental Protection Agency intends to force bakers literally to burn up the delicious vapor of baking bread before anyone gets a whiff of it. This is how fanatical the enviro-bullies have become.
Human noses have delighted in the scent of baking bread from the hour some proto-Julia Child first mixed together flour, water, and yeast and threw it on a fire. In his classic "Beard on Bread," the late gastronome James Beard exulted: "There is no smell in the world of food to equal the perfume of baking bread."
Part of that perfume is ethanol, a natural alcohol given off as yeast metabolizes bread sugars during the fermentation that makes dough rise. When the temperature of baking bread reaches 174 degrees, the ethanol -- a "volatile organic compound," or VOC, as the environmental wonks would say -- is released into the air. Sunlight easily breaks down VOCs into simpler elements, including atoms of oxygen. They, in turn, contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, an ingredient in smog.
When normal people smell bread baking, they close their eyes, inhale the homey scent, and say, "Ahhhh." Environmental zealots, who are not normal, snarl. An EPA spokesman: "Bakery emissions are in and of themselves a source of VOCs and subject to the provisions of the Clean Air Act."
What the enviro-bullies don't say is who is going to pay for those catalytic oxydizers, which cost around $500,000 apiece to purchase and install, and thousands more to maintain. But then, that's no mystery, is it? Either the consumer will pay when the price of bread goes up, or bread companies will pay with smaller profits. Or bakers will pay with their jobs.
Ah, but it's worth it, says Marc Cohen, a bureaucrat at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. "In the big picture, it will help make the air we breathe cleaner."
Well, "in the big picture," outfitting every brewery in America with catalytic converters would help make the air we breathe cleaner, too -- beer making releases VOCs that contribute, however remotely, to the formation of smog.
So do pine trees (the Blue Ridge Mountains are blue with ozone). So does rubbing alcohol. So does Chanel No. 5. How far do the environmental hysterics want to go?
In their fervor to make us spend more and more money to remove less and less pollution from air that is already the cleanest it has been in decades, the Green extremists offer a classic illustration of the law of diminishing returns. Most of the work of reducing smog -- and other air pollutants -- has long since been accomplished. Each additional measure taken now accomplishes less than the one before it yet costs far more.
America's air is purer today than it was a quarter-century ago. Since the 1970s, ozone in the air has dropped by 25 percent. Sulfur dioxide is down 50 percent; carbon monoxide, 53 percent; lead, 94 percent. In Massachusetts, the EPA's exacting ozone standard is now exceeded no more than five or six days a year. And even those few excesses occur not in the industrialized, automobile-thronged eastern part of the state but in the west, where the summer wind blows in from New York and New Jersey.
The war on air pollution launched in the 1960s has been won. Thousands of federal, state, and local environmental regulations now exist to make sure it stays won. We are in no danger of going back to leaded gasoline, or removing the scrubbers from factory smokestacks, or resuming the use of open incinerators.
Except for a few trouble spots -- the Los Angeles basin is a famously fumy example -- our air is clean and getting cleaner. But the Green Police can't admit that without raising the specter of their own obsolescence. So they become more dictatorial, inventing new burdens to impose, new rules to enforce, new ways to intrude on our time, our comfort, our income.
To fight the ozone "problem," dry cleaners are being told to buy costly new exhaust systems. Gas stations have been compelled to invest in special vapor-recovery pumps. Printers are being made to switch to more expensive inks. Eco-bureaucrats have ordered the redesign of lawnmowers and leaf-blowers. Eighty percent of cars on the road today are nonpolluting, yet drivers will be soon be forced to take their vehicles for "enhanced inspection and maintenance" tests that will waste even more time than the current inspections do.
And now Big Brother is cracking down on bread.
Crucifying the Pillsbury Dough Boy and bankrupting dry cleaners have little to do with love of nature, and much to do with love of power. Environmental autocrats are steadily making life in these United States more expensive, more unpleasant, and more oppressive. How much abuse will we let them inflict before deciding we've taken enough?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
The bread police
by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
October 4, 1994
"SAY, DO I SMELL baking bread?"