by Susan Lyon and Matthew Kasper
Last week, Environment America released Danger in the Air: Unhealthy Air Days in 2010 and 2011, a comprehensive ranking of metropolitan areas’ dangerous air days in 2010 and 2011. But unlike past studies, this one incorporates the most recent science on what healthy air really looks like – and finds dirtier results than we’ve been told.
The report calculates additional days of unhealthy air relative to the 2008 EPA ozone standard, 75 parts per billion (ppb), which scientists and the EPA’s independent advisory panel now argue is not sufficient. Environment America’s calculations are at 70 ppb or below, a standard that is more consistent with what scientists say is necessary to protect public health. The new report adds up bad air days based on the best science, finding:
“The problem may have been even worse than we thought. Because the national health standard for smog pollution set in 2008 was set at a level that scientists agree is not protective of public health, people across the country have been exposed to days of poor air quality each summer without even knowing it. We have calculated the additional days on which the air was unhealthy to breathe, according to a pollution threshold that is more consistent with what scientists say is necessary to protect public health. But because the 2008 standard was set too loosely, the public was not alerted to these days of unhealthy air.”
Across the state of California, for example, there were 135 smog days in 2010 exceeding recommended levels – that’s more than a third of the year. According to the report, ten metropolitan areas – Houston, TX, the Washington, DC area, Baltimore, MD, Philadelphia, PA- NJ, Riverside-San Bernardino, CA, Visalia-Tulare-Porterville, CA, Bakersfield, CA, Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA, Fresno, CA, , and Atlanta, GA – rank worst in the country for smog pollution based on the number of unhealthy air days they experience.
Bad Air Gets Even Worse
Furthermore, the impacts of dangerous air are not equally felt; they particularly impact children, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations across America. A major joint report released last week by the Center for American Progress, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change, and the National Wildlife Federation finds that nearly one out of every two Latinos lives in the country’s top 25 most ozone-polluted cities.
Environment America also released a side-by-side comparison of how the rankings would look if it used the EPA’s standard instead of its own calculations. There are only a few swaps in the rankings, but the number of days of the air was unhealthy to breathe dramatically changes between the two standards. For example in 2010, the Los Angeles area had 69 smog days, but Environment America finds there was an additional 32 days the air was unhealthy to breathe bringing the total of unhealthy days to breathe in the Los Angeles to 101 days.
Combating Dangerous Air
EPA must change its ozone standards to better reflect the best, most current scientific information. The Obama administration delayed this move earlier this month, pushing an update to 2013, but ultimately it must happen to better protect all Americans. Environment America recommends:
“EPA must set a National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ground-level ozone within the range of 60 to 70 parts per billion averaged over eight hours, as unanimously recommended by the independent board of air experts and scientists created under the Clean Air Act to provide periodic review and recommendations on air quality standards. The Obama administration considered updating the 2008 standard, but decided in early September 2011 to abandon this effort and update the standard in 2013.”
Additional policy recommendations include improving vehicle pollution control technology since pollution from cars and trucks accounts for a third of smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions in the United States, and, of course, ending coal and big oil subsidies.
Lauren Randall, Clean Air Associate for Environment America, sums it up:
“We must make every day a safe day to breathe. President Obama and Congress should stand up for Americans’ health and oppose any attacks to the Clean Air Act including the TRAIN Act (H.R. 2401)…that would roll back existing clean air protections for smog-forming pollution and other deadly pollutants.”
Susan Lyon is a special assistant on the energy team at the Center for American Progress. Matthew Kasper is an energy intern at the Center for American Progress.