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Valerie Jaffee’s Blog

Current Smog Standards Put Our Families at Risk from Life-Threatening Pollution, New Study Shows

Valerie Jaffee

Posted January 20, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment, Solving Global Warming

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Breathing just got a bit more hazardous. Last week, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a new report showing that most of the U.S. population is being exposed to dangerous air pollution, threatening the health, happiness, and ultimately the lives of millions of people. For the 24.6 million Americans already wheezing and coughing due to asthma, this surely comes as no surprise.

In the study, the EPA looked at the health effects of ground-level ozone, the main pollutant in smog, at a concentration of 60 parts per billion (ppb). This level of ozone is far below the EPA’s current air standard of 75 ppb, set under the Bush Administration. And the health effects of ozone--even at this lower concentration and even for young, healthy adults--were significant: lung inflammation, shortness of breath, pain while breathing, coughing, and throat irritation, just to name a few.

Put bluntly, that means that with the current standards, we’re still putting ourselves at risk of serious lung damage from the high levels of ozone in our air.

 

We’ve known for years the dangerous role that ozone can play in our respiratory health. It’s true that higher up in the atmosphere, ozone protects us from harmful UV radiation. But at ground level, where we breathe in ozone everyday thanks to the pollution spewed out by cars, coal-fired power plants, and industrial factories, the pollutant can be highly dangerous.

Ground-level ozone has been linked to major respiratory problems, including coughing, wheezing, susceptibility to pneumonia and bronchitis, asthma attacks, or even permanent lung damage. Studies have shown that high ozone concentrations permanently prevent children from developing the same lung capacity as children in less polluted areas.

Of course we all want to save the lungs of our children. You would think that it’s common sense that the EPA should move forward to protect us all from dangerous smog and the ozone it contains.

Scarily enough, not everyone thinks so. Even as the EPA has proposed stronger safeguards to protect us from ozone, big oil and coal corporations have united to try and stop the EPA from doing its job.

In Washington, multiple bills aimed at handcuffing the EPA from regulating life-threatening pollution have already been introduced in the House of Representatives. As my colleague Pete Altman writes, it’s probably no coincidence that many of these bills are sponsored by representatives who received large donations from the oil industry in their bid to get elected. In other words, they are putting the profits of big polluters ahead of the health of our families.

These big polluters claim that the EPA’s proposal to reduce smog is “unworkable” because under a stricter standard, hundreds of counties would find themselves out of compliance. Clearly, that’s the whole point. If so many of our communities have smog above the levels that are safe  to breathe, especially for children and seniors who are the most vulnerable, then that’s exactly why tougher standards should be in place.

In 2007 alone, emergency rooms saw 1.75 million visits for asthma attacks. That same year, 3,447 people died due to asthma. Each year, asthma costs our nation an estimated $20.7 billion in health costs.

Safeguard our children’s health or line the pockets of dirty energy companies and disingenuous politicians? That’s the trade-off we’re facing.

We should stand up for the millions of people around this country who face dirty air, each and every day. We deserve better. Our leaders in Washington need to do their job, representing the interests of American families across the country, and allow the EPA to continue to do its job to protect our clean air.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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