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Breathe Easy - EPA Takes Major Step to Improve Air Quality

05 Dec 2014  |   Mark Sheridan

Tags: Clean Air

Add one more thing to the list of what to be thankful for this holiday season: cleaner air. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken an important step to improve public health by updating the clean air standard for ground-level ozone pollution, which causes smog. Ground-level ozone is formed when pollution from cars, factories and power plants interacts with heat and sunlight. On hot, sunny days, urban areas are most at risk for unsafe levels of ozone pollution, but the pollution can also travel long distances, putting rural areas at risk as well. Because warmer temperatures increase ozone levels, the effects of climate change will likely make the threat of ozone pollution even worse. 

Ozone is the most widespread air pollutant in the U.S and the American Lung Association estimates that more than 140 million Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone pollution. While some forms of air pollution have decreased in recent years, ozone pollution has increased. This increase is disconcerting because the latest health studies indicate that ozone pollution causes negative health impacts at levels that were previously considered “safe.” Breathing ozone irritates the lungs and is a major contributor to asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses.  Ozone pollution is also likely to put people at a higher risk for heart attacks and heart disease. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to ozone pollution. Nearly one in ten children in the U.S. have asthma, with low income and minority families more likely to suffer from the disease. 

The EPA is legally required under the Clean Air Act to set air quality standards that protect public health. The updated ozone proposal is based on the latest science from thousands of health studies from leading institutions. The EPA proposed strengthening the standard for ozone pollution, making our air healthier to breathe and reducing emergency room visits and missed days at work and school in the process. Under this proposal, the ozone pollution limit will be reduced from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to within a range of 65-70 ppb. The EPA is also soliciting feedback on an even stronger standard of 60 ppb. The EPA estimates that a standard at 65 ppb would create health benefits totaling up to $38 billion by 2025, which significantly exceeds the estimated cost of implementing the standard. 

Despite the urging of health officials and scientists to move forward with an updated standard that protects our health, polluters and their allies on Capitol Hill are already attacking the proposal using trumped up cost figures and hoping we ignore the science. Industry groups are using a tired playbook of grossly exaggerating the cost of meeting the new standard. We’ve seen this move every time clean air and other standards have been proposed, but the reality is that time and time again the cost of compliance ends up being far lower than predicted by industry. 

The message from doctors and public health officials is clear: ozone pollution poses a real threat to our health and the public has a right to know whether the air they breathe is safe.  If you care about clean air, make your voice heard and tell the EPA you support their efforts and encourage them to finalize the strongest standard possible. 

(Photograph from Dave Herolz Flickr account)

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