Dealing with smog

Smog sends 53,000 to the hospital each summer, causes over 6 million asthma attacks.

provided by National Environmental Trust

ummer smog (ground-level ozone) sends an estimated 53,000 persons to the hospital, 159,000 to the emergency room and triggers 6,200,000 asthma attacks each summer in the eastern half of the United States, according to a study released today by Clear the Air: National Campaign Against Dirty Power, a new joint project of the Clean Air Task Force (CATF), National Environmental Trust (NET), and US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

"These numbers show that ozone smog is a public health crisis affecting hundreds of communities," said Conrad Schneider, Technical and Policy Coordinator of CATF, one of the founders of Clear the Air: National Campaign Against Dirty Power. "Despite popular impression, this is not just a Northeast problem. From Texas to Illinois and from Georgia to Maine, and everywhere in between, people are admitted to the hospital for serious, prolonged respiratory distress due to ozone smog."

Out of Breath: Health Effects from Ozone in the Eastern US, authored by Abt Associates, the consulting firm under contract with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to analyze air pollution damages, looked at the 37 Eastern states affected by US EPA's summer smog rule, estimating a range of health impacts for 34 cities within the region as well as for each individual state.

Among the report's findings for states and metropolitan areas are:

  • Texas had 4,600 hospital admissions, 1,700 emergency room visits for asthma, and 660,000 asthma attacks.
  • The state of New York had 4,100 hospital admissions, 1,200 emergency room visits for asthma, and 510,000 ozone-caused asthma attacks.
  • The Washington, DC metropolitan area had 800 hospital admissions, 340 emergency room visits, and 130,000 ozone-caused asthma attacks.
  • The Atlanta metropolitan area had 800 hospital admissions, 340 emergency room visits, and 130,000 ozone-caused asthma attacks.

"An accident or national disaster that sent this many people to emergency rooms would be front-page news," said Rebecca Stanfield, Clean Air Advocate for US PIRG "Although the effects of ozone are spread out over the course of the summer, the suffering of people with respiratory problems is no less real."

Ozone is a highly reactive gas that is the main component of summer smog. Ozone is capable of destroying organic matter, including human lung and airway tissue, by essentially burning through cell walls. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest industrial contributor to ozone pollution, emitting more than one-quarter of the nation's ozone-forming nitrogen oxides.

Last year, US EPA directed 22 states to cut smog-forming pollution from power plants by approximately 85 percent below 1990 levels. Several Midwestern states sued to block the reductions, and a panel of the DC Circuit Court delayed implementation of the EPA plan. Recently, the New York state attorney general's office announced that it would sue 17 coal-burning power plants.

"The easiest, most cost-effective thing we can do to reduce this misery is to cut smog-forming pollution from old, dirty power plants. As the Out of Breath study shows, our lungs are depending on it," said Phil Clapp of National Environmental Trust. "The Clean Air Act needs to be strengthened to protect the health of millions of Americans. Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) have introduced legislation to accomplish that goal, and their bill should be a central part of Congress' next reauthorization of the Act."

Last month, Congressmen Waxman and Boehlert introduced The Clean Smokestacks Act of 1999, which would close an existing legal loophole that allows old power plants to emit as much as ten times more pollution than a new plant may emit, while setting national caps for the four main power plant pollutants.

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Clean Air Act has indicated that he will soon begin hearings leading to an overhaul of the Act by his panel in January, 2001.