As the EPA nears a court-ordered deadline to update its pollution standard for ground-level ozone, or smog, I’ve been learning more about how ozone affects my taxed-but-not-represented hometown of Washington, DC.
I spoke recently with Janet A. Phoenix, MD, MPH, Assistant Research Professor in the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University, about the air my kids breathe.
“DC has been a nonattainment city for ozone and particle pollution on and off for many years,” Dr. Phoenix says. That means that levels of these two harmful pollutants routinely exceed federal health standards. And that, in turn, means that DC residents breathe unhealthy air.
According to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report, the District of Columbia gets a failing grade for ozone pollution, putting more than 15,000 children with asthma at risk of asthma attacks and other respiratory problems.
Where is the pollution coming from?
In this area, cars and trucks are the biggest offenders. “Traffic contributes a lot to these high levels,” Phoenix says. The DC region’s notoriously tangled traffic cuts through densely populated areas, bringing tailpipe emissions into busy neighborhoods. In addition, the transportation system is not evenly developed across the city, according to Phoenix. Although a new Metro line opened this year to Virginia, west of the city, the eastern portion of the city is struggling with population growth coupled with few public transportation options. So traffic pollution disproportionately impacts certain areas of the city – often the poorest communities.
What are the health impacts?
Ground level ozone is a powerful lung irritant that triggers asthma attacks. “DC is known for having very high prevalence of asthma,” Dr. Phoenix says, adding that 12% of DC children have asthma, compared to 9% nationwide, she says. And asthma isn’t the whole picture. “Not only does air pollution aggravate diseases people already have,” she says, “but it’s also been implicated in the development of disease” in otherwise healthy individuals, contributing to risk of cardiovascular disease and interfering with lung development in children.
EPA is required by court order to propose an updated ozone NAAQS in December. Lower standards would be “likely to have positive health benefits” for DC kids. “But DC has a history of nonattainment even with the old standard.” The most important thing for our region, says Dr. Phoenix, is “how to make sure that DC remains in compliance” with even the current ozone standard.
What should moms do about air pollution in DC?
Dr. Phoenix says that individual actions – such as mowing your lawn less frequently – can help. One good local resource is the Air Quality Action Guide from Clean Air Partners, which provides information about current air quality and offers tips relating to energy use and transportation. (Dr. Phoenix sits on the board of Clean Air Partners on behalf of Breathe DC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to lung health.) But individual actions, Phoenix stresses, are not enough.
“There are some things individuals can’t accomplish,” she says.
Addressing air quality issues in our region involves “working together across political jurisdictions” and “advocating for bigger things,” such as improvements in access to public transportation options, and strong federal regulations of harmful air pollutants.
“Locally, we need to speak up,” Dr. Phoenix says. “Moms can be powerful advocates for our families.”