By Katie Huffling and Molly Rauch
In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed updating our national standard for ground level ozone, also known as smog. This updated standard would better protect little lungs, and moms and nurses applaud the effort.
Ground level ozone is formed when industrial emissions from power plants, factories, cars, and other sources react with heat and sunlight in the atmosphere. While ozone in the top layer of the atmosphere protects us from dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the sun, at ground level it’s a powerful lung irritant – and worse.
The science is unequivocal that smog is bad for our health. It cuts lives short, causing people to die prematurely. It contributes to dangerous lung infections. And perhaps most importantly – at least from our perspective as a midwife and a mom, respectively – it harms fetuses and children, interfering with lung development and triggering asthma attacks.
One in ten U.S. children suffer from asthma. Besides the suffering caused by this national epidemic, the costs of treating asthma and the effects of days lost from school and work are enormous – costing our society more than $30 billion each year. Reducing ozone is one step to curb some of these spiraling costs.
An extensive and growing body of scientific evidence shows that smog causes measurable, serious health impacts at levels commonly found in metropolitan areas across the U.S. That’s why EPA has proposed to tighten allowable levels of ground level ozone from 75 parts per billion (ppb), our current standard, to a range of 65-70 ppb.
While we support EPA moving forward on strengthening these vital public health protections, the proposed range is not strong enough to protect developing lungs and children with asthma from the health impacts of breathing smog. The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Panel, an independent group of scientists appointed by EPA to give the agency expert advice, has concluded that the adverse health effects of smog are apparent at levels as low as 60 ppb of smog.
We agree with the weight of science, and with the advice of health groups across the country such as the American Lung Association — in order to adequately protect children, the national standard for smog should be set at 60 ppb.
Here’s why: EPA is required by law to set an ozone standard that protects public health, with an adequate margin of safety. Air quality alerts – an important national system that helps health professionals and parents make decisions about whether to let children walk and play outside – are tethered to EPA’s standard. It is critical that EPA’s standard provides an accurate picture of our air quality.
Americans have the right to know the truth about whether their air is safe to breathe. The best available science tells us that 60 ppb will provide the most public health protection, helping protect some of the most vulnerable breathers, including children with asthma.
We’ve already heard a predictable chorus of opposition to EPA’s new smog proposal. The argument hinges on the claim that a tightened smog standard would cost too much for America, and would destroy jobs.
We say hogwash. There is not a shred of evidence that pollution restrictions have ever harmed the U.S. economy. Since its passage in 1970, the Clean Air Act has achieved significant reductions in air pollution – all while the U.S. population has doubled, economic activity has tripled, and vehicle miles traveled have quadrupled.
We don’t have to choose between clean air and a strong economy. We do have a right to clean, healthy air – and our children have the right to skip, run, and play outside without breathing dangerous levels of smog.
Katie Huffling, a nurse-midwife, is director of programs for the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. Molly Rauch, a mom of three, is public health policy and outreach manager for Moms Clean Air Force.