On a mid-August evening in southwest Ohio last year, 16 year-old high school football player Elbert Jovante Woods suffered an asthma attack so severe he had to be rushed to the hospital, where doctors waged an unsuccessful three day battle to save his life.
Local doctors considered air pollution to be a factor, as Cincinnati news station WLWT reported:
“We've actually had a lot of patients in the last week come in with exacerbation of asthma," said Dr. David Bernstein, a University of Cincinnati researcher. "We think it's probably related to air quality."
That bad air quality causes more kids to have to be rushed to emergency rooms gasping for breath is well documented, as my colleague Kim Knowlton recently noted. A 2011 analysis reviewing nearly 100 prior ozone studies found that as smog levels rise, emergency room visits by asthmatic children also increase.
Children are among the most vulnerable because their bodies are still growing, they tend to be more active and spend more time outside – often during the afternoons when smog levels usually peak. Overall, nearly 37 million children live in areas where the air is unhealthy, according to the American Lung Association.
Children with asthma are even more vulnerable to smog pollution. There are an estimated 7 million US children with asthma in the US. And national asthma rates are rising again, in all age categories but especially among children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So what was the smog level on the day that Elbert Woods suffered his deadly asthma attack? I checked the smog levels around Cincinnati and discovered they reached a peak of 64 parts per billion.*
That’s a level considered safe by today’s standards, set by the Bush administration at 75 parts per billion.
Health experts, organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have said the current standard is not strong enough to protect health. In fact, the American Lung Association and other groups - as well as a number of states Attorneys General - sued the EPA when it set the standard at 75 ppb, because the Bush EPA disregarded its own science advisors who had said a lower standard was needed.
The level that experts have been urging the EPA to adopt is between 60 and 70 parts per billion. Many organizations like ALA and NRDC have been urging the EPA to set the standard at the lower end of that range to provide as much protection as possible.
A few parts per billion here or there doesn’t sound like all that much, but research shows that even very low concentrations of ozone can be harmful to health, as a peer-reviewed study in Environmental Health Perspective found:
Our findings indicate that even low levels of [smog] are associated with increased risk of premature mortality. Interventions to further reduce [smog] pollution would benefit public health, even in regions that meet current regulatory standards and guidelines.
That’s why adopting the most stringent smog standards possible would save as many as 12,000 lives each year.
Cleaning up the air faces strong political opposition, though. Polluters like Ohio-based American Electric Power –whose plants dump no small amount of smog-forming pollution into Ohio’s air - are opposing against the more protective safeguards the EPA is proposing.
Some are concerned that the Obama administration may waver in the face of such political pressure and duck responsibility for strengthening clean air safeguards.
Doing so would run counter to the commitment President Obama made during his State of the Union speech earlier this year, when he said
I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people. That’s what we’ve done in this country for more than a century. It’s why our food is safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our air is safe to breathe.
Just months later, we are counting on the President to protect our kids from dangerous, even deadly, smog pollution.
* If you click through to this page, click on the "Sycamore" ozone monitor in the graphic and a readout of the day's levels will pop-up. That station is the nearest to Jovante Woods' high school. Also, parts per billion is how smog levels are measured. In this case, if you could “grab” a billion molecules of air, 64 of them would be ozone, or smog molecules.