The following Opinion piece from SACE staff was published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Sunday August 22, 2010. (Note that links and images were not published in the original version).
As you read this, there is a good chance that your air quality is considered “unhealthy” because of ground-level ozone pollution. In 2008, the year with the most recently available data, Hamilton County experienced 110 days during which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index listed a health risk for at least one segment of the population. These risks include reduced lung function, inflammation and damage to airways, increased risk of asthma attacks, increased susceptibility to respiratory infections and aggravation of chronic lung diseases.
There are big stories in our history that boldly demonstrate the severity of problems caused by ozone and other air pollution — the death and illness of more than 6,000 people in Pennsylvania in 1948, for instance — but when we experience more than 100 days of unhealthy air here at home, the danger is especially hard to ignore. Everybody is at risk of suffering symptoms ranging from coughing, throat irritation and congestion to chest pain and worsened bronchitis or emphysema, but children and the elderly are most at risk because of their sensitive upper respiratory systems. Even people trying to stay healthy by exercising are at a special risk from the extra exposure to ozone in the air.
Fortunately, the EPA is addressing these health dangers by updating the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The current standard for ozone is 0.075 parts per million, but Congress directed the EPA to review these standards regularly and update lawmakers if evidence shows that tighter standards are needed to protect human health. The EPA is now reviewing the science and relying on technical data including epidemiological studies, human health studies, and exposure and risk assessments to update the ozone NAAQS to within a range from 0.060-0.070 parts per million.
Whenever science demonstrates that tighter clean air standards are required, critics clamor about the costs of improving air quality. But we must remember that as a society, we are already paying extraordinarily high prices for not having clean air. Every single day, and especially on days with air quality alerts, we are paying the price for dirty air through increased disease and even death.
Ozone-polluted air costs everybody money through medical bills, emergency room visits and lost work productivity. When a child’s asthma acts up and a parent has to stay home from work, that costs the parent and the employer money. When an elderly person or a child can’t breathe, the visit to the emergency room costs money. When Medicaid or Medicare patients have routinely severe respiratory problems, the expense of the program increases, costing everyone in the long run.
With all this in mind, it is simply unfair and untrue to argue that improving air quality is an unreasonable expense. When ozone standards are strengthened, the EPA is simply internalizing the costs associated with dirty cars, dirty power plants and other dirty industries. This shifting of expenses is exactly why the EPA has reviewed costs and benefits closely, and come up with a pretty startling set of numbers.
EPA economists estimate that an ozone standard closer to 0.070 parts per million would cost upward of $25 billion per year in 2020. If the EPA chooses the 0.060-parts-per-million alternative, costs could reach $90 billion. These are big numbers, but based on the EPA’s look at the benefits, we can expect to save much more. At 0.070 parts per million, the benefits from fewer health complications could reach $37 billion per year in 2020, and at 0.060 parts per million we could expect benefits as high as $100 billion. No matter what standard the EPA selects, there will be a net monetary benefit.
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that the risk of premature death increased as levels of ozone increased. The EPA’s new ozone NAAQS mean that Chattanooga’s ozone levels will have to decrease, and that means that the lives and pocketbooks of Chattanoogans will grow.
For the time being, however, the American Lung Association gives Hamilton County an F for ozone-related air quality. This grade is based on 44 “orange” and three “red” alert days. A grade of F and nearly 50 unhealthy days already this year are indications of a truly dangerous problem. While Chattanooga’s air quality has improved some over the past few decades, with the EPA’s NAAQS revision, the opportunity for truly clean air is finally here.
In 1969 the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare designated Chattanooga as the most polluted city in the nation. Today, on the other hand, even with an F grade, Chattanooga is surprisingly not on this list of the most polluted cities and is a thriving metropolis. Those who oppose cleaner air tell us that the costs are just too much to bear — that we cannot strive for cleaner air and a growing economy. But the evidence tells us that we actually can continue this nearly half century of air-quality improvement, reduce air quality alert days, and increase life spans and overall health, while simultaneously continuing economic growth and reaping our share of the $100,000,000,000 worth of clean air benefits.
Josh Galperin is a Knoxville-based policy analyst and research attorney with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, www.cleanenergy.org. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Alliance promotes energy reform and environmental protection.