by Molly Rauch
This week the non-profit group Clean Air Watch took a look at how much smog Americans have endured this spring. Clean Air Watch examined the number of states in which smog, or ozone, exceeded national standards in the month of May, as well as the number of times state ozone monitors registered levels above the federal standards.
Smog is caused by pollution from cars, trucks, power plants and other industrial sources. It damages lungs and triggers asthma attacks, among other health impacts. In May 2012, 31 states had smog “exceedences” (the technical term for when an air quality monitor measures ozone levels that exceed federal standards). There were a total of 854 such events. This number is almost triple the number of similar events in May of 2011.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors air pollution around the country through a nationwide network of monitors. (See here for a map of the air-monitoring network.) When a monitor detects ozone, or smog, in violation of federal ozone standards, it is posted on the AirNow website – but that website only shows you what’s happening today, not what’s happening this year.
Clean Air Watch says that, based on these nationwide air quality monitors, we’ve had the smoggiest May in at least 5 years. Why was it so bad? As Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch explained, ozone is created when emissions mix with heat and sunlight.“Hot weather helped trigger a problem,” he said. “We need to tackle the root cause, which is pollution.” O’Donnell also pointed out that global warming will create the weather conditions that will lead to more smog, which is something Moms Clean Air Force is also concerned about.
To add insult to injury, these exceedences are based on the federal ozone standard set by George W. Bush in 2008 – a standard that the EPA admits is too weak to adequately protect asthmatics and others from health damage. John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, lays the history of that standard bare in painful detail in an illuminating post that will leave you speechless (breathless?) over the compromised process by which the government sets health protective air pollution standards.
It’s a circus of moneyed influence and neglected science.
As Walke points out, the 2008 Bush standard studiously ignored the advice of the scientific board tasked with advising EPA on the health effects of ozone:
“Despite the Clean Air Act requirement that clean air standards be reviewed and revised every five years, the Bush administration delayed and failed to revise the 1997 ozone standards until March of 2008. Then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson disregarded the unanimous recommendations of EPA’s independent, expert science advisors that the 84 ppb standard be lowered to between 60 and 70 ppb in order to protect public health with an adequate safety margin. Instead Johnson set the standard well outside that range at 75 ppb.
After Johnson rejected the science advisors’ unanimous ozone advice, the advisors took the extraordinary step of writing a strong letter to him condemning his weaker 75 ppb standard: “[T]he members of the CASAC Ozone Review Panel do not endorse the new primary ozone standard as being sufficiently protective of public health.”
That standard, which the CASAC Ozone Review Panel did not endorse, is still our nation’s standard, because last September, President Obama delayed updating it yet again. As Walke writes, that decision has real-life implications for our nation’s health:
“By blocking a stronger smog standard, first at 65 ppb and then at 70 ppb, the president and White House officials have allowed the following health hazards to occur every year until that standard eventually is strengthened and enforced: 4,300 to 8,000 premature deaths; 2,200 to 3,800 nonfatal heart attacks; and 23,000 to 40,000 asthma attacks.”
All this means that our current smog standard, the one by which state air monitoring stations mark our air’s compliance, is too weak to protect our health. As Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch said, the exceedances are “an underestimation of the true problem.”
Photo credit: Steven Buss