We Can Prevent Health Problems from Air Pollution by Strengthening Standards and Stopping Budget Cuts
by Ronald White, 5/13/2015
"My asthma is highly reactive to ozone. On days like this I can hardly walk across the room. My quality of life is trashed by ozone." This is just one of hundreds of personal stories about the devastating health impacts of air pollution that are posted on the American Lung Association’s State of the Air website.
Although we’ve made progress in reducing air pollution since Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, continued advances in science have found that even low levels of pollutants like ozone and small particles can significantly damage our health. These pollutants can cause permanent respiratory system damage, send people with heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to the hospital, and cause severe, sometimes life-threatening asthma attacks. Breathing dirty air can also increase cancer risks and result in early death.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the final stages of deciding how much to strengthen the national air quality standard for ozone (smog) pollution. This will be one of the most important public health decisions the Obama administration makes, especially for children, elderly, and those with heart and lung disease who are most affected by ozone pollution.
The EPA can protect hundreds of millions of Americans from dirty air by adopting a strong ozone pollution standard.
To highlight the importance of this issue, especially for those most vulnerable to its impacts, the Center for Effective Government has just released a new report: Gasping for Support: Implementation of Tougher Air Quality Standards Will Require New Funds for State Agencies. The report and accompanying interactive map provide information on the people who would be protected if EPA listens to health scientists and medical professionals and adopts the strongest ozone standard level under consideration – 60 parts per billion (ppb).
Under this standard, some 206 million Americans would be able to breathe clean air. That's over 106 million more people than the number covered by the current, inadequate standard adopted by the Bush administration in 2008. This additional protection includes over 14 million elderly, 25 million children, including more than 2 million children with asthma, 7 million adults with asthma, and more than 5 million people with COPD and a similar number of people with heart disease.
A stronger ozone standard would prevent nearly 2 million asthma attacks and thousands of deaths every year.
Compared to the current allowable level (75 ppb), an ozone standard of 60 ppb would prevent up to 5,800 premature deaths, 2,100 hospital admissions for breathing problems, 6,600 asthma-related visits to the emergency room, and 1.7 million asthma attacks in children every year. This would save between $12-20 billion in health costs annually by 2025. And these estimates do not even include the additional $2.1-3.6 billion in benefits from areas in California, which would have longer to meet the stricter standard.
We can't keep cutting clean air budgets if we want state agencies to effective implement a stronger ozone standard.
But we can only realize the health benefits of a stricter ozone standard if state and local air pollution programs have the resources to effectively implement it. The federal Clean Air Act gives primary responsibility for implementing our clean air programs to state and local air pollution control agencies. Federal support for these programs has fallen by 21 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past decade while needs continue to increase. And Congress is poised to reduce EPA’s budget yet again.
Substantial increases in funding for state and local air pollution control agencies will be necessary if states and cities are going to effectively respond to current and new responsibilities to ensure our air is safe to breathe. A first step would be for the federal government to provide the 60 percent funding match for state agencies that the Clean Air Act established. This would provide over $600 million more in funding each year, which would be more than offset by health care savings from avoided emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and early deaths that occur as a result of dirty air. It could also prevent the pain and suffering that comes along with asthma attacks, heart attacks, and the deaths of family members and friends; this is a value that is difficult to translate into dollars and cents.
Adequately protecting the health of Americans cannot be done on the cheap. As our knowledge of the health risks of dirty air increases, the costs of inaction are clear. Failing to make investments in clean air now means we’ll pay more later – in increased health care costs and a declining quality of life for everyone. We owe it to the health of the American public and future generations to make the right choice now.
As another concerned parent notes on the American Lung Association website: "I want to fight for clean air because everyone has the right to breathe healthy air. I want my children to be able to play outside and not have an increased risk for asthma and other diseases. I want to be able to work and exercise outside."