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News: The Air Up There

Smog makes people sick, but the cure might be expensive

By Maria Rogers · May 14th, 2003 · News
  New federal air quality standards are important, according to the Sierra Club. Glen Brand is a local organizer for the environmental group.
Jymi Bolden

New federal air quality standards are important, according to the Sierra Club. Glen Brand is a local organizer for the environmental group.

Smog levels in Greater Cincinnati exceeded federal air quality standards five times last year. If that sounds like a small problem, consider a different measure. Next year new standards take effect. If they had been in force in 2002, Greater Cincinnati would have exceeded the standards 167 times -- more than one out of every three days of the year -- according to data from the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services.

Already this year the American Lung Association has again given Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky a failing grade in its 2003 State of the Air report.

About 46,000 adults and more than 12,000 children in Hamilton County have asthma, the American Lung Association says. People with respiratory illnesses know the impact the upcoming smog season could have on their health.

But smog is a problem for everyone, according to Molly Fontana, executive director of the American Lung Association of Ohio's Central Region.

People sometimes dismiss tightness in the chest, coughing and wheezing as the effects of seasonal allergies, but the cause is often smog.

"We've noticed what in actuality it is is the ground-level ozone and particulate matter you're having trouble with," Fontana says. "During high days of ozone, as soon as the sun hits the pavement and you have a lot of emissions out there, then you're going to have that ozone form."

Children and the elderly are most susceptible to smog.

"Children don't have the lung capacity an adult does, and they're still growing," Fontana says.

A 2000 report by the Ohio Department of Transportation said the stretch of Interstate 75 between Interstate 74 and Cincinnati-Dayton Road is the most congested site in Ohio. Cars and trucks produce 103 pounds of smog per person each year in the Tristate, according to the Sierra Club.

Vehicles emit approximately 45 percent of all pollutants that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, according to Linda Oros, spokesperson for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA).

'A higher level of protection'
Standards now used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency establish concentrations of ozone greater than 120 parts per billion in a one-hour period as an exceedance of air quality standards. But even five years ago environmental experts said that standard is less than healthful. In a 1998 letter, Dan Peterson, then with the Cincinnati Health Department, discussed the standards.

"Analysis of the newest data on ozone health effects indicates that the current standard for ozone does not protect human health, does not protect agricultural plants and does not provide an adequate margin of safety for any exposed population," Peterson wrote. "At the current standard of 120 parts per billion, most people are affected, rather than protected."

The new standard will be 80 parts per billion for ground level ozone, measured over an eight-hour average. The region will have will have three to five years to implement control programs to meet the new standard, Oros says. The penalties for not reaching attainment standards are still being developed, she says.

Kirsten Tobey, research associate for Earthjustice, says the new standards are important for protecting residents' health. Earthjustice is a public-interest law firm formerly known as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

"It provides a higher level of protection under federal air quality laws," she says. "It's the federal government showing that it cares enough about the negative impact of poor air quality on public health to bring a higher level of protection to the public."

The new standards will provide a truer picture of exposure to pollution, Tobey says.

"If you're exposed to a high level of ozone for one hour, it's not as bad as being exposed to an even lower level of ozone over an eight-hour period," she says. "The chances are on a hot summer day the ozone levels are going to be sort of a medium level for a longer period of time, and it's more of a realistic way to measure how much people are actually being exposed to the pollutant."

But cleaner air doesn't come without costs. With relief for some comes grief for others, especially when it comes to balancing the need to protect health with the demand for moving goods.

In 1998 the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. EPA announced an $83 million penalty against diesel engine manufacturers, the largest civil penalty ever for a violation of environmental law. As part of the settlement, seven manufacturers agreed to spend more than $1 billion to resolve claims that they had installed computer devices in diesel engines that resulted in illegal air pollution.

The new EPA standards will be hard on trucking companies, according to Glen Kedzie, assistant general counsel for the American Trucking Associations. Some companies have been reluctant to buy trucks with new emission controls, unsure of their performance, he says. Other companies have bought used trucks.

"These are some of our lowest truck sales that we've seen in probably the last 10 years," Kedzie says.

The increased costs to develop the new technology are passed from manufacturers to those who sell the trucks. Then, Kedzie says, they're passed on to the trucking companies.

But tougher air quality laws are necessary for public health, according to Glen Brand, Midwest regional representative for the Sierra Club.

"This is how we get cleaner air, by having stronger health standards," he says. ©



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