“School’s out for summer!”
When I was growing up, Alice Cooper’s 1972 hit usually infiltrated my head sometime around the beginning of May, looped incessantly, and hit a feverish crescendo in the few minutes before the final bell released us to summer break. Now, many years later, a very different line completes the couplet in my head.
“Ozone is a bummer!”
For the 7 million American children with asthma, summer break can indeed be a real mixed bag. Sunshine and long days draw them outdoors, but dirty air might send them right back inside with constricted, mucus-filled airways.
Ozone is the classic summer pollutant. It isn’t emitted directly but rather is a combination of two other pollutants—nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are released from vehicle tailpipes and factory smokestacks. Apologies for the chemistry, but these compounds react in the presence of sunlight and heat to form ground-level ozone (O3), the main component of smog.
Kids, particularly those with asthma, are highly susceptible to smog pollution. There’s a big education push this month—which is National Asthma Awareness Month—to empower and inform the nearly 26 million kids and adults who suffer from the disease.
In a press release, the Environmental Protection Agency offered this advice: “Know your asthma triggers and avoid them.” Stay away from dust mites, mold, secondhand smoke, cockroaches… and air pollution.
If only it were that easy. If you happen to be one of many millions of Americans who live in areas still plagued with poor air quality, you have two options to avoid air pollution: stay inside or move.
I’m sorry, but that’s a crappy set of choices.
That these are the options is due in no small part to politics and polluter influence, plain and simple. In the case of national standards to control ozone pollution, for example, the Obama administration backed away from the urgent recommendations of its scientific and medical advisers to strengthen the current standard after an aggressive campaign by the representatives of big industry—the Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers, among others. John Broder of the New York Times wrote a thorough piece on the ordeal back in November.
Instead of following medical and scientific advice, the administration kept in place a weak Bush-era standard even though an upgrade could save up to 12,000 lives and prevent 58,000 asthma attacks every year. Earthjustice filed suit against the administration over this decision in October 2011. David Baron, Earthjustice’s lead attorney on the case, said “Instead of protecting people’s lungs as the law requires, this administration based its decision on politics, leaving tens of thousands of Americans at risk of sickness and suffering.”
(Incidentally, the EPA released yesterday a list of the regions that fall short of the weak Bush-era standard.)
As the American Lung Association makes clear in its 2012 State of the Air report, the Clean Air Act has facilitated some great improvements in air quality over the last 40 years. But we’ve still got a long ways to go, particularly as we’re in the midst of unprecedented political pressure to weaken the Clean Air Act. There’s a lot that people can do to control their asthma, but ducking and covering in the midst of air pollution isn’t a viable therapy. We need strong federal standards to prevent pollution in the first place.
We’re working to ensure the EPA follows the law to clean up air pollution. Please take a minute to tell them clean air matters to you.