Looking across San Francisco Bay can be an alarming sight. Many days, a dingy cloud hangs over the Bay, threatening lungs and lives. Ozone pollution, also known as smog, is a serious health threat that Californians have suffered under for decades. In the American Lung Association’s 2014 State of the Air Report, Alameda and Santa Clara Counties received a D, while Contra Costa County received an F when grading the counties on smog pollution. California is home to the top five most smog-polluted cities in the nation: Los Angeles, Visalia, Bakersfield, Fresno, and Sacramento. Overall, 77 percent of Californians breathe unhealthy air.
Ozone pollution not only ruins our skylines but endangers lives. We’ve known smog has serious impacts on lung illnesses like asthma for many years, but recent medical studies link smog to heart disease and low birth weight as well. The risks are even greater for children, the elderly and communities of color that are disproportionately impacted. That is why it is essential to have a federal air quality standard that protects us from breathing the high levels of ozone that currently put millions at risk.
In California, 4 million people are living with asthma. And an afternoon jog, a day at the park or soccer practice could cause a trip to the emergency room or worse. Sometimes people die because of their inability to get air into their lungs during an asthma attack. Under the current 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. You 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.
A stronger standard and cleaner air would have significant benefits for California. Meeting a new, lower ozone standard would prevent up to 430 deaths each year in California. Roughly 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, costly asthma treatments and expenses for other smog-related illnesses.
In 2008, the Bush administration went against its own science advisors’ recommendation of a 60-70 ppb standard and adopted a significantly weaker ozone standard of 75 ppb. When the Obama administration came into office, then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson publicly acknowledged that the 2008 ozone standards were scientifically and legally “indefensible.”
The Obama administration now has a chance to undo the wrongs committed by the Bush administration when it deferred to the cries of polluters and their allies. And Californians can join in this effort by making their voices heard in support of clean air. The EPA will be holding a public hearing in Sacramento on the proposed stronger ozone standards on Feb. 2, from 9 A.M. to 7:30 P.M. The Obama administration can put California and the rest of the country on a path toward cleaner air. The EPA should follow the science and set a standard that allows Californians to one day breathe a breath of truly fresh air.
This column first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.