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EPA Urged to Strengthen Ozone Standards to Protect the Most Vulnerable

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Air pollution threatens the health of millions of Americans, especially those who live in urban areas.  More than half of U.S. population lives in counties with unsafe air.    Ground-level ozone or smog affects more than 158 million Americans in ten of the eleven most populous states (California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas).  Air pollution claims 70,000 lives a year, nearly twice the number killed in traffic accidents. 

Public health costs due to air pollution account for over three-quarters of the total pollution-related public health costs and could be as high as $182 billion annually.  An estimated 50,000 to 120,000 premature deaths are associated with exposure to air pollutants. People with asthma experience more than 100 million days of restrictive activity annually, costing $4 billion a year. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is soliciting comments on its current ozone standards. Under the Clean Air Act, air quality standards must be set at levels that protect public health, including that of vulnerable and sensitive populations. The agency held its first set of public hearings in Philadelphia and in Los Angeles on August 30.  Three other hearings are set for Atlanta, Houston, and Chicago on September 5.  EPA has until March to make its final decision.   

The agency in June indicated it would consider tightening its current smog standards, which is measured by the concentration of ozone in the atmosphere over an eight-hour period.  The current standard is .080.  EPA is proposing tightening the standards between .070 and .075 parts per million.  However, the agency’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), an independent body chartered under the Clean Air Act, concluded that the current ozone standard is not adequate to protect human health and unanimously recommended EPA set a new tougher standard in the range of .060 to .070 per million.   

Epidemiological and clinical studies reveal that breathing ozone at concentrations at the current standard of 0.08 ppm, decreases lung function, increases respiratory symptoms, inflammation, and increases susceptibility to respiratory infection.  EPA should come clean and set the ozone standards at the lowest level.  However, ozone has adverse lung function effects and increases cardiovascular and respiratory deaths even at 0.06 ppm.   

Vulnerable populations such as children are at special risk from ozone—the main ingredient of smog.   One of every four American child lives in areas that regularly exceed the U.S. EPA’s ozone standards.   Over 27 million children under age 13 live in areas with ozone levels above the EPA standard.  And half the pediatric asthma population, two million children, live in these areas.  More than 61.3 percent of African American children, 69.2 percent of Hispanic children and 67.7 percent of Asian-American children live in areas that exceed the 0.080 ppm ozone standard, while 50.8 percent of white children live in such areas. 

High ozone levels cause more than 50,000 emergency room visits each year and result in 15,000 hospitalizations for respiratory illnesses.  Ozone pollution is responsible for 10 percent to 20 percent, and nearly 50 percent on bad days, of all hospital admissions for respiratory conditions.  Moreover, ground level ozone sends an estimated 53,000 persons to the hospital, 159,000 to the emergency room and triggers 6.2 million asthma attacks each summer in the eastern half of the United States. 

Asthma attacks send African Americans to the emergency room at three times the rate (174.3 visits per 10,000 population) of whites (59.4 visits per 10,000 population). African Americans are hospitalized for asthma at more than three times the rate of whites (35.6 admissions per 10,000 population vs. 10.6 admissions per 10,000 population). In 2004, Asthma prevalence rate among African Americans was 36 percent higher than that for whites.  The death rate from asthma for African Americans is twice that of whites (38.7 deaths per million population vs. 14.2 deaths per million population.   

Transportation-related sources account for a major share of the primary smog-forming pollutants.  Nearly half (48.6 percent) of the sprawled out car-dependent Atlanta region's air pollution is from cars and heavy-duty vehicles, which each year spew over 1.5 million tons of pollutants.  More cars translate into more traffic gridlock, more air pollution and more illnesses.  Transportation-related air pollution sources exact a major financial toll on the region, with public health costs estimated to be as high as $637 million.  In 2007 (between May 1 and August 31), the metro Atlanta area experienced forty-four smog alerts—31 "orange" days and 25 "red" days for ozone, particulate matter, or both.  

While car owners may occasionally choose not to drive, those without cars really do not have a choice of not breathing the air.  Enforcing stronger federal ozone standards and more alternatives to automobile travel will go a long way in improving the health and livability of the entire Atlanta region.  It’s a matter of growing smarter and growing healthier. 

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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