Skip to main content

Photo Essay Protecting Lives and Lungs From Smog

Ozone is the most widespread of air pollutants. It contributes to what we often see in the air as smog or haze. It is also linked to asthma attacks, bronchitis, heart disease—and thousands of deaths each year.

It is essential we have a federal air quality standard that reduces the high levels of ozone that are already placing millions at risk. The EPA was under court order to take action to limit the amount of smog allowed into the air. (On October 1, 2015, the new ozone pollution standard of 70 ppb was released by the EPA. It is far weaker than called for by the nation’s leading medical organizations and falls short of what doctors say is needed to save lives and protect kids, seniors, and asthmatics from harm.)

Listening sessions were conducted across the country on the proposed ozone standards, in the months before the final standards were released. These are stories from the hearing held in Sacramento, California:

Members of the California Nurses Association march to a rally outside the hearing in Sacramento, CA, on February 2, 2015.
Members of the California Nurses Association march to a rally outside the hearing in Sacramento, CA, on February 2, 2015.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

1 On February 2, 2015, in Sacramento, CA, nurses joined concerned members of communities from across the state and country to call for a stronger, more protective rule limiting ozone pollution and improving the quality of the air we breathe.

Ozone pollution does not just ruin our skylines—it endangers lives. Smog has serious impacts on lung illnesses, such as asthma. An estimated 26 million people live with asthma in the United States, according to federal data. Asthma now affects 1 in 10 children.


Hundreds gather in Cesar Chavez Park outside the Sacramento office of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hundreds gather in Cesar Chavez Park outside the Sacramento office of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

2 An afternoon jog, a day at the park or soccer practice could cause a trip to the emergency room or worse. People can die due to an inability to get air into their lungs during an asthma attack.

Under the then-current ozone standard, which allows 75 parts per billion of ozone into the air, people don’t have a good idea of when they’re putting themselves or their children’s health at risk. We have the right to breathe healthy air—and the right to know when outdoor activity is dangerous because the level of ozone is particularly high. Even healthy adults can suffer from impaired breathing on high ozone days. (Ed. Note: On October 1, 2015, the new ozone pollution standard of 70 ppb was released by the EPA. Although the new standard lowered the amount of ozone allowed in the air, it was still far weaker than the 60 ppb limit called for by the nation’s leading medical organizations.)


Matthew Elliot of the California Nurses Association.
Matthew Elliot of the California Nurses Association.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

3 "What do we want? Clean air! When do we want it? Now!" chants Matthew Elliot of the California Nurses Association. A nurse, Elliot says that he sees increased health problems in his patients on days when air quality reach unhealthy levels.

A stronger ozone standard and cleaner air would have significant benefits for all. In California alone, meeting a lower ozone standard would prevent up to 430 deaths each year. An estimated 230,000 missed days of school and 210,000 asthma attacks would be avoided. Cleaner air is also good for our pocketbooks and could yield an annual health benefit of up to $4 billion by reducing medical costs that come from emergency room visits and expenses for treating smog-related illnesses.


A speaker rallies the crowd outside the hearing.
A speaker rallies the crowd outside the Sacramento hearing.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

4 The Clean Air Act requires that standards for smog and other air pollutants be based solely on what's necessary to protect health.

And people rely on these standards to tell them whether the air in their communities is safe to breathe: The air quality alerts we hear on smoggy days are based on comparison of predicted pollution levels with the standards. A parent deciding whether to let an asthmatic child go outside to play needs to know if the level of air pollution poses a health threat—not whether it merely reflects the air quality that industry is willing to pay for.


Janet Rodriguez, a fifth grader from Oakland, California, wears a symbolic mask. Rodriguez was one of many youths who attended the event to advocate for clean air.
Janet Rodriguez, a fifth grader from Oakland, California, wears a symbolic mask.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

5 Janet Rodriguez, of Oakland, CA, was one of many youths who attended the event to advocate for clean air.

Ground-level ozone is formed primarily from reactions between two major classes of air pollutants: volatile organic compounds (VOC) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks each year are linked to this form of pollution, which is created from the exhaust of power plants, factories, cars and trucks.


Saleh Sharay draws anti-smog and pro-health chalk art outside the hearing.
Saleh Sharay of Oakland, CA, draws anti-smog and pro-health chalk art outside the hearing.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

6 "Clean Air Makes LIFE," wrote Saleh Sharay, who joined with several of his classmates from an elementary school in Oakland, CA, to attend the meeting and support a strong ozone rule and clean air.


Oscar Garcia and Kimberly Garcia of Reno, NV, hold a sign outside of the hearing.
Oscar Garcia and Kimberly Garcia of Reno, NV, hold a sign outside of the hearing.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

7 Oscar Garcia and Kimberly Garcia of Reno, NV, testified at the hearing and were among the many who asked the EPA to create a new, stronger ozone standard that limits ozone to at least 60 parts per billion, the most protective option EPA's science advisors have recommended. A standard of 60 ppb will have substantially greater health benefits than the EPA's then-current proposal of 65–70 parts per billion.

Strengthening the standard to 60 ppb would save up to 12,000 lives every year, prevent 58,000 asthma attacks and avoid 21,000 hospital and emergency room visits, according to the EPA’s own estimates. (Ed. Note: On October 1, 2015, the new ozone pollution standard of 70 ppb was released by the EPA. Earthjustice Managing Attorney David Baron said of the new standard, “This weak-kneed action leaves children, seniors, and asthmatics without the protection doctors say they need from this dangerous pollutant.”)


Fifth grader DeMardre Allen, left, shares a light moment with his friend Ali Ismael outside of the hearing.
DeMardre Allen, left, with his friend Ali Ismael outside of the hearing.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

8 Fifth grader DeMardre Allen and his friend Ali Ismael came from Oakland, CA, as part of a large youth contingent, calling for cleaner air in their communities. Nearly all of the youth who testified at the EPA hearing shared personal stories about the damage ozone pollution has done to those they love.

Earthjustice's Research & Policy Analyst Adenike Adeyeye also spoke at the hearing and later wrote about the impressive and inspirational youth turnout.


EPA panel members listen to testimony during the hearing.
EPA panel members listen to testimony during the hearing.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

9 The EPA also held hearings earlier in the year in Arlington, TX, and Washington, D.C., to seek public comment on their proposed ozone rule.

Although industry groups claim a more protective smog standard would have a negative impact on the economy, environmental groups say the facts prove otherwise: the gross domestic product grew 195% between 1970 and 2006, even with the creation of Clean Air Act standards that greatly reduced ozone, particulate matter and other toxic pollution.

The authors of the Clean Air Act wisely judged that health-based standards would not only provide essential protection for people's lungs, but also drive the technology and innovations needed for compliance.


Research & Policy Analyst Adenike Adeyeye of Earthjustice speaks before the EPA panel. She asked the EPA to protect public health by setting the new ozone standard at 60 ppb.
Adenike Adeyeye of Earthjustice speaks at the hearing.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

10 Research & Policy Analyst Adenike Adeyeye of Earthjustice asked the EPA to make the air safe to breathe for everyone by setting the new ozone standard at 60 ppb. "EPA’s own science advisors recommended setting a 60 to 70 parts per billion ozone standard way back in 2008 and since then, the data in support of a 60 parts per billion ozone standard has only gotten stronger," said Adeyeye.

Earthjustice has worked for decades to obtain stronger federal rules to control smog pollution, acid rain, and other pervasive pollution, and to defend rules increasing public health protections from industry attacks.


Dr. Harry Wang, vice president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sacramento, speaks with fellow PSR member Michelle Schnack. Both Wang and Schnack testified before the EPA panel, asking for a strong ozone rule.
Dr. Wang of Physicians for Social Responsibility speaks with fellow PSR member Michelle Schnack.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

11 Dr. Harry Wang, vice president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sacramento, and fellow PSR member Michelle Schnack both testified before the EPA panel, asking for a strong ozone rule.

In recent years, Dr. Wang has brought his voice to Washington, D.C., as part of Earthjustice’s 50 States United for Healthy Air event to speak about the benefits of clean air rules and standards. "The science is clear about the devastating health effects of air pollution and what needs to be done to protect our community," Dr. Wang has said. "The Clean Air Act must be fully implemented."


DeMardre Allen records his teacher Ramon Guerra, as Guerra testifies before the EPA panel.
DeMardre Allen video records his teacher speaking at the hearing.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

12 DeMardre Allen video records his teacher Ramon Guerra, as Guerra testifies before the EPA panel.

Guerra helped a busload of students come from Oakland to attend the Sacramento hearing. Along with other teachers and students, he spoke of how dirty air impacts their lives and how a strong standard to limit ozone pollution will help their community.


Steve Page, EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards Director, left, and Amy Zimpfer, Associate Air Division Director of EPA's Region 9 office, listen to testimony during the hearing.
Steve Page, EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards Director, left, and Amy Zimpfer, Associate Air Division Director of EPA's Region 9 office, listen to testimony during the hearing.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

13 Representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were in attendance at the hearing to listen to comments on the proposed ozone standard directly from the public.

The science supporting stronger standards is more compelling than ever. More than 1,000 studies now link ozone to an array of serious health impacts, including bronchitis, asthma attacks, emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and premature deaths. The research shows these impacts occur at levels well below those allowed by the then-current standard of 75 parts per billion. (Ed. Note: On October 1, 2015, the new ozone pollution standard of 70 ppb was released. Lisa Garcia, Earthjustice’s Vice President of Healthy Communities, said of the announcement, “The science shows that ozone is dangerous to these kids at the levels allowed by this new standard.”)


Jameka Hodnette, outside of the hearing in Sacramento.
Jameka Hodnette, outside of the hearing in Sacramento.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

14 Jameka Hodnette has attended both of the other EPA public hearings, held in Arlington, TX, and Washington, D.C.

She is passionate about clean air because her nephew suffers from asthma. She asked the EPA to deliver a strong, protective ozone standard to help people with respiratory problems, such as her nephew.


We all need to breathe clean air, and the Clean Air Act gives us this right.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

15 We all need to breathe clean air—and the Clean Air Act gives us this right. Hearing attendees wore buttons as one of the many reminders of the message carried by the audience and told by the speakers.


Marina Barragán comforts Desert Mirage High School student Selene Hernandez, 17.
Marina Barragán, right, comforts high school student Selene Hernandez.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

16 Marina Barragán comforts Desert Mirage High School student Selene Hernandez, 17. Hernandez cried as she described how members of her family have been seriously impacted by poor air quality, including her grandmother who died from respiratory disease.

Moments before, Barragán had told the committee: “Leaders don’t make excuses—they make improvements.” She asked for an ozone standard that is at least 60 ppb. The South Coast Air Basin area, where Barragán and her fellow students live, is home to more than 16 million residents. The region consistently has the filthiest air in the nation due to emissions from the freight industry, refineries and other toxic polluters.


Students from Desert Mirage High School cheer outside of the hearing in Sacramento.
Students from Desert Mirage High School cheer outside of the hearing in Sacramento.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

17 The students from Desert Mirage High School near Coachella in Riverside County were initially prevented by their principal and other school officials from attending when they expressed interest in speaking at the EPA hearing. Despite the opposition, the students did not give up. They organized themselves, their parents and eventually their elected officials.

After weeks of campaigning, they received permission at the last-minute to miss a day of school in order to testify at the hearing. They boarded a bus at 1:30am to make it to Sacramento in time for the hearing.

In collaboration with youth organizers from Sierra Club, the students led a lunchtime rally in Sacramento’s Cesar Chavez Plaza. Then, they got in front of the EPA panel and shared deeply personal stories of how air pollution has impacted them and their families.

The students made it clear to the EPA and everyone at the hearing that they will do whatever it takes to protect their communities and the environment from dangerous levels of smog.

Reducing ozone emissions will save lives and improve the health of all—it is an investment in our future.  

(Ed. Note: On October 1, 2015, the new ozone pollution standard of 70 ppb was released by the EPA. Earthjustice Managing Attorney David Baron said of the new standard, “It will allow thousands of deaths, hospitalizations, asthma attacks, and missed school and work days that would be prevented by the much stronger standard supported by medical experts. It’s likely this weak standard will be challenged in court as a betrayal of the Clean Air Act’s promise of healthy air.”)

By Chris Jordan-Bloch.
Updated October 2, 2015. First published February 5, 2015

Everyone has the right to breathe clean air.

And we need to fight for it.

Fighting for clean air is about protecting the health of kids, families and the communities that we live and work in.

Sign the Clean Air Promise to tell our elected officials and other decision-makers that clean air is a priority. Take action today