This piece originally ran in the Houston Chronicle on December 3, 2014.
By Elena Craft and Brian E. Tison
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, by the authority afforded through the Clean Air Act, proposed a strengthened health-based ozone standard within a range of 65-70 parts per billion. Ozone is one of the most ubiquitous and harmful air pollutants on the planet and has been linked to premature deaths, increased asthma attacks and other severe respiratory illnesses, as well as increased emergency room and hospital admissions. The proposed standard, set to be finalized in October, has been recommended repeatedly by EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, as well as medical and public health professionals around the country because overwhelming evidence proves that adverse health effects still occur at the existing standard of 75 ppb. For an industrial state with a large population like Texas, the stakes are high for clean air and public health. As the American Lung Association named Houston the sixth-most-polluted city in the country for ozone, this new standard couldn’t come fast enough. In addition to fulfilling its mission to protect human health and the environment, EPA is right to strengthen this national standard for the following reasons:
1. The current standard does not adequately protect human health
A standard of 75 ppb is not adequately protective of human health, especially for those most vulnerable to the harms of ozone, including the more than 25 million people in the United States who have asthma – the 74 million children, 40 million senior citizens and nearly 17 million outdoor workers. Based on age alone, more than one-third of the U.S. population is at an increased risk of adverse health effects from ozone air pollution.
2. Clean air is good for the economy
By law, the issue of cost cannot be factored into setting a health-based standard. But even if costs were considered, the conclusion remains that clean air is good for the economy. In 2010, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency charged with protecting public health and natural resources, released an analysis demonstrating that Houston’s gross domestic product actually increased while ozone concentrations went down. Further, EPA’s cost-benefit analysis, covering a 30-year time span, shows that the Clean Air Act has returned benefits 30 times greater than the cost of implementation.
3. Houston’s progress in reducing ozone is not enough
Some critics of a stronger standard argue that because some ozone originates in other places, nothing more can be done to reduce pollution in Houston. Unfortunately, pollution has the same adverse health outcomes no matter where it originates. And Houston is a long way from exhausting the tools and programs available to help reduce ozone pollution. In fact, the state has close to one billion dollars in a clean air fund specifically for the purpose of replacing polluting equipment and investing in clean air projects.
4. The proposed standard aligns more with other developed nations
Once a leader in environmental protection, the United States now lags behind other developed and developing nations in the protectiveness of air-quality standards for ozone. Numerous countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, have adopted ozone standards that are far more stringent than the current standard in the U.S.
5. Public has a right to know
The public has a right to know about the quality of air they are breathing. The public needs to know that we have decades’ worth of research, including studies showing adverse health effects in healthy individuals from ozone exposure below the current limit. Families need to be armed with the best information possible, so that they can take the appropriate steps to protect their loved ones from environmental hazards like ozone.
If Houston expects to attract the best and brightest in talent and to earn a reputation as a vibrant, healthy city, the region must demonstrate a commitment to protecting the environment, including embracing public health protections. As the energy capital of the country, Houston has proven time-and-time again that it has the ingenuity to innovate and thrive economically without sacrificing one of our most precious resources: clean air.
Elena Craft, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense Fund, is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health. Brian E. Tison, a physician with Vital Allergy and Asthma Center, is board-certified in adult and pediatric allergy and immunology.