More than 142 million Americans 75 percent of the nation’s population living in counties with ozone monitors are breathing unhealthy amounts of ozone air pollution (smog), representing the third straight year in which the toxic pollutant reached fully half of the American public, according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2002 report. Of those living in the 678 counties monitoring ozone, the vast majority of the most vulnerable lived in the nearly 400 counties receiving an F, including nearly three-quarters of the seniors and more than 70 percent of children who had an asthma attack in the last year. The findings are compounded by the reality that, due to a series of legal and management delays, states are relying on weak federal clean air standards in place since 1979.
Among those metropolitan areas scoring “Fs,” the 10 most ozone-polluted areas are Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County, Calif.; Bakersfield, Calif.; Fresno, Calif.; Visalia-Tulare-Porterville, Calif.; Houston-Galveston-Brazoria, Texas; Atlanta, Ga.; Merced, Calif.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, N.C.-S.C.; and Sacramento-Yolo, Calif.
“It is clearly time to get serious about enforcing all of the provisions of the Clean Air Act so that we place Americans’ health above business and political interests,” said John L. Kirkwood, American Lung Association president and CEO. “Yes, we’ve made great progress in cleaning our nation’s air, but this report illustrates that we have a long way to go to give our children safe air to breathe.”
The report examines ozone air quality data for 1998-2000, which is the most recent quality-assured data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The report grades and ranks counties on how often their air quality reaches “unhealthful” categories of the EPA’s Air Quality Index for ozone air pollution.
While communities have worked to implement the Clean Air Act and improve outdoor air quality, a series of legal and other issues have led to some of the most significant protections being “on hold” for the last five years. According to Kirkwood, the American Lung Association is gravely concerned about risks to continued progress toward cleaner air. Threats come from two areas: continued delays in implementing the 1997 ozone standards and proposals to roll back key provisions of the Clean Air Act.
“More protective ozone standards effectively have been ‘on hold’ due to challenges by industry, which have kept states relying on weaker standards they have used since 1979,” Kirkwood said. “Somehow, industry believes it needs to continue to pollute. They have fought every step we’ve taken toward cleaner air for all Americans. Now is the time for EPA to act. What could be more basic?”
The nation is still using the ozone standard set in 1979, despite the evidence of numerous scientific studies showing that thousands of people are harmed, and despite EPA’s own adoption of tighter standards five years ago. EPA issued a new, final National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone in 1997 but has not yet designated “nonattainment areas” for the new ozone standard (although required to do so legally by 2001).
Secondly, EPA is considering scrapping a provision of the Clean Air Act called New Source Review, which requires approximately 17,000 of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest power plants, oil refineries, and other industrial facilities to meet emissions standards applicable to new facilities by installing up-to-date pollution control devices. Rolling back the New Source Review protections would be the greatest attempt to weaken the Clean Air Act since its enactment. The American Lung Association has and will continue to work to prevent that step. The Lung Association opposes any effort to dilute the current level of protections.
“Because America’s oldest, dirtiest facilities have remained exempt from modern emissions standards, they continue to spew increasing amounts of toxins into our air,” explained Kirkwood. “In the Clean Air Act, Congress told companies that if they made any modifications that resulted in increased pollution, they were responsible for installing state-of-the-art pollution controls so that the old plants would meet the same requirements as new ones. Rolling back those provisions would give these old plants the right to pollute for as long as their owners can keep them going.”
The American Lung Association supports bills already introduced in Congress that would close the 30-year-old loophole that lets power plants off the emissions hook. The legislation, which would apply to old and new power plants, also would set reasonable and achievable caps on the four major pollutants. The Lung Association also supports new diesel regulations, issued by the EPA in January 2001, to significantly limit tailpipe emissions from heavy-duty diesel buses and trucks and require cleaner diesel fuel.
State of the Air 2002 Highlights
Four counties on the list of the 25 most ozone-polluted counties this year were not on the list last year: DeKalb and Fayette Counties, Ga.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Maricopa, Ariz. Among the 25 most ozone-polluted metropolitan areas this year, two—Birmingham, Ala., and Macon, Ga.—were not on last year’s list.
Four metro areas came off the list of the 25 most ozone-polluted between 2001 and 2002: Pittsburgh and Lancaster, Penn.; Richmond-Petersburg, Va.; and Louisville, Ky. Five counties—Camden, N.J.; Imperial, Calif.; Charles and Prince George’s, Md.; and Denton, Texas—all dropped off that roster. Those localities, however, continued to receive an “F” grade.
With the exception of Des Moines, Iowa, which dropped off the list, the rest of the metropolitan areas with the least ozone air pollution last year continued to remain consistent. In the following metropolitan areas, all of the counties with monitoring sites received an “A” (listed alphabetically): Bellingham, Wash.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Duluth-Superior, Minn./Wis.; Fargo-Moorhead, N.D./Minn.; Flagstaff, Ariz./Utah; Honolulu, Hawaii; Laredo, Texas; Lincoln, Neb.; McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas; Salinas, Calif.; and Spokane, Wash.
Ozone is a highly reactive form of oxygen that results primarily from the action of sunlight on hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides emitted in fuel combustion. Ozone levels typically rise between May and October when higher temperatures and increased amounts of sunlight combine with stagnant atmospheric conditions that are associated with smog episodes.
Relatively low ozone levels can affect even healthy people’s ability to breathe, leading to shortness of breath, chest pain when inhaling deeply, wheezing and coughing. Long-term exposure can result in reduced breathing ability and increases the risk of respiratory disease later in life. Children, the elderly, and individuals with chronic lung disease, such as asthma, are at greatest risk of breathing problems from ozone exposure.
“While we continue to see millions of Americans affected by smog, it is important to realize that our nation’s air has improved greatly since the Clean Air Act became law in 1970,” Kirkwood explained. “Those improvements are attributable directly to the strengths of the Clean Air Act and the efforts of government agencies and community partners who have worked hard to improve air quality.”
What Americans Can Do
Changes in Americans’ personal and corporate behavior can improve summer smog conditions. A study conducted during the 1996 Summer Olympics, for example, demonstrates the realities of smog control measures. To reduce traffic congestion during the games, the city increased public transportation options, closed its downtown area to private cars, and encouraged businesses to promote telecommuting and alternative work hours. As a result, not only did the city see large and significant decreases in ozone concentrations, but the numbers of children with asthma seeking emergency care, urgent care and hospitalization were reduced significantly.
Written by: American Lung Association
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