When we think about public health, we think in terms of things like nutrition or exercise programs. Too often, we don't think about air quality, and the massive effect outdoor air pollution can have on our health.
In 2012, the last year we have data for, outdoor air pollution caused 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide. About 80% of those deaths were related to heart disease and strokes, 20% of lung diseases and infections. While most of those deaths occur in low-income countries, there's trouble in the U.S., as well. The American Lung Association's 2015 "State of the Air" report shows that 47% of Americans are living in areas where pollution levels are dangerously high.
Although air quality is better in the U.S. than it was in the days before the Clean Air Act, there's still a lot of progress that needs to be made. The two big hazards in the U.S. now are ozone and particulate pollution.
The EPA's latest rules say that ozone levels should be under 70 parts per billion. Exposure to ozone can lead to respiratory irritation. It can aggravate asthma in the hundreds of thousands of people -- including 10% of the country's children -- who suffer from the disease. With exposure over time, it can lead to permanent lung damage.
The EPA's rules have long lagged behind what scientists recommend for optimum public health. The 70 ppb rule is at the upper end of the 60 to 70 ppb that was recommended when it came time to reassess healthy levels. Under GWB, standards were set at 75 ppb, far over what scientists said was safe.
Where Does Ozone Come From?
Ozone isn't a direct pollutant. Instead, it is formed when other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that come into contact with oxides of nitrogen and are exposed to sunlight. VOCs are released through dozens of the activities we engage in every day, from driving our cars to painting a building. They are in wood preservatives, automotive products, degreasers and dry cleaning fluids. Inside your house, you spray them around when you use air fresheners, paint thinner or moth repellants. They're also emitted in larger quantities from oil and gas fields.
And, while some air pollution affects people in low-income communities more, ozone is an equal opportunity polluter. Ozone tends to spread out over a wide range, covering poor and wealthy alike. As Gretchen Goldman wrote last year, "If it's a bad air day in Queens, it's likely also a bad air day in Greenwich, Connecticut." Ironically, ozone levels tend to be higher in suburban and rural areas than in urban ones.
How Do We Fix These Issues?
On a personal and individual level, we can choose low-VOC paints over regular and skip out on the aerosol air fresheners. In industrial settings, the answer is to cut down on what they are allowed to release. The standards for ozone have been tightened before, but never quite as much as needed. They can, and should, be tightened again.
Rising temperatures are also contributing to higher levels of ozone. Whether you believe that climate change is manmade or not, it's part of what's making the air more dangerous to breathe.
We can also work to raise awareness about people who are affected by respiratory diseases caused by pollution. The law firm Belluck & Fox holds a mesothelioma scholarship essay contest each year. Mesothelioma, which is caused by asbestos exposure, is diagnosed in 2,000 to 3,000 people each year. The essay contest helps raise awareness. Entrants can write about the personal stories of individuals with mesothelioma, research in the area and the history of asbestos pollution. $10,000 in scholarship prizes are awarded each year.
But, Doesn't That Cost Money?
Here's the thing: we either pay for the regulations and technology that will lead to cleaner air for all of us. Or, we'll pay the price somewhere else. If we don't take care of the air, we'll pay the price in higher medical prices. Asthma causes $50.0 billion in direct healthcare costs each year. Even with the Affordable Care Act, many low-income Americans are still without insurance. People who don't have insurance typically don't go to their primary care physician when suffering a prolonged asthma attack. They wait for it to go away until they can't wait anymore, then they go to the emergency room. With the average ER visit for breathing problems costing more than $1,500, the chances are good that that's a bill they can't pay. So, it winds up with higher prices for medical care for all of us.
Bottom Line: Pollution isn't just an environmental issue. It's a matter of public health.