Smog Days: Should Soaring Temperatures Keep Us At Home?

By Arpita Bhattacharyya

The heat wave last week got me thinking: We may need smog work-at-home days, just like snow days.

I was commuting to work last week in Washington D.C., where a heat wave sent temperatures soaring to 101 degrees.  Looking around at the exhaust pipes spewing fumes into the baking sun, I realized why smog days may be necessitated.

As a kid, snow days were one of the perks of going to school in Minnesota, because you got to stay home and play in the snow.  When I got older, I finally realized as I slowly backed out of the icy driveway that snow days existed to prevent the potential fatalities of thousands of students commuting to school on slippery roads with visibly blinding weather conditions.  High levels of ground level ozone, like icy roads and severe weather, can be fatal and taking cars off the roads on those baking heat days could be one step towards saving lives.

When nitrogen and volatile organic compounds from motor vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions combine in the presence of heat and sunlight, it creates ground-level ozone, more commonly termed “smog.”  As reported earlier, hot, sunny days provide the perfect condition for smog levels to go through the roof.  Across the East coast and Midwest last week, the hot weather was cooking up deadly smog.  Temperatures last Thursday hit 101 degrees in Washington, 102 in Newark, and 94 in New York, nearly breaking NY heat records from 1933.  These days were labeled “code red,” meaning that outdoor activities should be severely restricted, especially for young children and the elderly.

Smog has a direct impact on rates of heart and respiratory disease, as well as increases in the risk of cancer and stroke, resulting in premature deaths.  A recent congressional hearing focused on the impact of smog on children, with Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) urging congressional support for proposed EPA air toxic regulations that would help protect over 7 million children and 17 million adults from ozone-exacerbated asthma attacks.  Apart from asthma, it is also important to note that almost 37 million children under the age of 18 and 30 million people living at or below the poverty level live in places with unhealthy smog levels.

Driving to work on 100-plus degree days increases smog levels in the air. But that smog doesn’t go away once a heat wave ends.  The days following can often be the worst, as the reaction has taken place and the smog hangs in the air.  With more hot days coming our way due to climate change, we should consider the impact of our commute to work.  Working from home on hot days (smog days) could drastically decrease the smog in the air during heat waves.

Interestingly enough, the commute to work not only impacts the health of millions, but also individual productivity. In May, Matt Yglesias reported on the National Bureau of Economic Research report, Impact of Pollution on Worker Productivity, which found that “a 10 ppb decrease in ozone concentrations increase worker productivity by 4.2 percent.”

Rising temperatures exacerbated by climate change increase smog, impact the health of millions and potentially harm the productivity of our struggling economy. Our daily commute to work is a major cause of this problem.

The EPA’s proposed power plant air toxic standards would limit mercury, acid gases, and other smog ingredients from coal-fired power plants.  That would solve an important piece of the puzzle.  The impacts of driving to work on smog days should deepen our resolve to use subways, public transport, or car pool.  If we can’t stay at home, we should do our part to decrease our impact.

The recent heat wave also shed light on the international warming and smog situation.  I was recently a commuter in the South Asian cities of Delhi and Dhaka, and both heat and smog are huge problems for these large urban centers.  This May, Delhi registered its hottest day in five years, at 111 degrees.  Temperatures above 104 degrees are frequent and will become more common with a rise in global temperatures.  Both Delhi and Dhaka also face rising pollution levels, due to their growing populations.  The developing and developed world face high temperatures, high pollution levels, and a growing number of people exposed to smog.

The EPA is regulating many smog-forming agent, but conservatives want to undo those regulations.  At the same time, global warming continues unabated (see “Yes, Climate Change Will Harm Your Health and Your Children’s: Rising Temperatures Worsen Ozone Pollution, Asthma Attacks“).

Perhaps the day might come when “smog days” become as common place as snow days, as more people realize the danger of our tailpipes pose on hot days.  I’m not holding my breath, but then again, maybe I should.

Arpita Bhattacharyya, Center for American Progress

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