A Labor Day Debacle for Clean Air and Health

Let’s keep health front and center in looking at deeply distrurbing news from 2011’s Labor Day weekend: the White House retreated Friday on an opportunity to save lives and improve Americans' health.

The President refused to set lower, more health-protective ozone air quality standards.  The decision ignores the unanimous recommendation of the scientific advisors who were asked to look at the evidence and agreed: a lower standard is needed to protect Americans’ health.

Friday’s retreat is a tragedy of public health victories “that-might-have-been,” now abandoned:  

  • 4,300 lives every year could have been saved – and now, will not be.
  • 2,200 heart attacks every year could have been avoided – and now, won’t be.
  • 770,000 days when people miss work or school could have been avoided - but not now.
  • 23,000 asthma attacks annually could've been prevented because of cleaner air.

Are you one of the 25 million Americans with asthma? That includes an estimated 7 million kids. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) says asthma prevalence rates are on the rise nationwide. The greatest 2001-2009 increase was among African-American children (almost a 50% increase). Friday’s decision is terrible news for people with asthma. The White House will need to answer if you’re asking, what happened?

This one decision hurts tens of millions vulnerable to ozone smog air pollution: people with asthma, children, seniors, people with chronic heart, respiratory or lung ailments, outdoor workers, athletes, and those of us trying to exercise outside, breathe deeply, get fit and stay fit --- but work and play is more difficult in ozone-polluted air.

EPA’s website describes how breathing ozone irritates airways and reduces lung function in ways likened to “getting a sunburn on your lungs.” It can trigger chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Repeated exposure can permanently scar lung tissue.

The President’s decision is a capitulation to industry polluters at the expense of public health. It retreats from the mission of protecting human health and our children’s right to breathe clean, healthy air.

Even considering costs, we need a lower ozone standard. As my colleague Laurie Johnson explains here, EPA’s economic analysis finds that the benefits of a lower, more health-protective air quality standard outweigh costs 26 to 1. NRDC’s Frances Beinecke highlights this and more here.

At the very least, now we expect President Obama to strongly defend what remains of the Clean Air Act rules that are already out.

Undoubtedly, public health will face more House attacks. But public health should not be negotiable. Our children’s health is not for sale.