EPA Must Strengthen our Smog Standards or Risk the Health of Millions of Latinos

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By 2050, one in four Americans will be Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the last decade, the total Latino population in the U.S. grew at a rate of 43%, more than four times the rate of population growth for the nation overall. The demographics of our country are changing, and our leaders in Washington must take note. We’re watching and ready to act.

Unfortunately, while our numbers change, some things remain very much the same. This is especially true when it comes to air quality. Latinos continue to live in areas with the highest concentrations of air pollution, and intensely suffer the impacts of this pollution. So when rumors started spreading that big polluting industries might force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to delay or forego stronger limits on ozone, a precursor to smog, we had to take note.

Ozone is a gas that occurs naturally in the stratosphere, where it protects us from the sun’s UV rays. But ozone also exists in the air we breathe here at ground level, where it’s the primary component of smog. On the ground, ozone is created when pollutants (namely emissions from cars and factories) react in the presence of sunlight. Any of us who have traveled to Los Angeles are familiar with the thick grey layer.

But what you might not know is that close to 50% of all Hispanic-Americans live in counties that frequently violate ground-level ozone standards (smog standards), according to the CDC. That means millions of Latinos – our children, grandparents, brothers and sisters – are at risk of asthma, bronchitis and even death due to this dangerous air pollutant. Since so many Latinos work outside in construction and agricultural trades, Latinos are often at even greater risk of the damaging health impacts of smog. And we’re not alone. The CDC also estimates that Asian-Americans face a similar if not greater threat from smog.

Smog pollution at high levels can cause diminished lung function and inflamed airways, aggravating asthma or other lung diseases. In fact, a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the risk of dying from respiratory disease is more than three times higher in areas with the most concentrated ozone than in those with the lowest ozone concentrations.

As Latinos, we know what’s at stake when it comes to good (or too often, bad) air quality. With unemployment for Latinos still hovering near 12 percent, paying for unforeseen medical bills can be devastating. Taking days off from work to care for yourself or ill family members translates to days of lost pay and often lost jobs. For many employed in construction and agricultural trades, days off simply is not an option. To make matters worse, Latinos are hit especially hard by unexpected healthcare costs from illnesses like asthma since approximately two of every five Hispanics were classified as uninsured in both 2004 and 2008. And for our children, more smog means missed school days, setting our kids back in school and lowering their quality of life.

EPA currently limits the concentration of smog in the air to 75 parts per billion. The agency’s science advisers have unanimously recommended strengthening that standard to a range between 60 to 70 parts per billion. If we truly want to protect our health, experts believe the standard should be at the lower end of that range.

This summer, EPA is scheduled to issue standards that will strengthen protections against smog. The question is whether the Obama Administration will adopt a sufficiently strong standard to genuinely protect the most vulnerable among us—infants, children and the elderly—or bend to the will of Big Polluters who care more about profits than public health.

A truly protective standard would prevent as many as 12,000 premature deaths, 58,000 asthma attacks, and 21,000 hospital and emergency room visits per year. It would help us avoid 5,300 heart attacks and more than 2 million missed school days and 420,000 lost work days. Implementing a weaker standard for smog, just like polluting industries want, would mean more lives lost and more asthma attacks – suffering that Latinos would disproportionately bear.

This is why we are joining together to demand that EPA be permitted to do its job to protect our health, not polluter profits.

Strong standards under the Clean Air Act have improved our air quality for decades, and will lead to even cleaner air in the future for people all across the country. This is an opportunity for us to protect millions from harmful respiratory diseases, regardless of race.

This blog was co-authored with Valerie Jaffee.