South Florida Congresswoman Leads Letter For EPA to Protect Air Quality, Address Smog Hurting Minority Communities

Last week, U.S. Rep Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., the vice chairwoman of the U.S. House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, led a letter with 36 members of Congress to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calling for stronger protective standards for ground-level ozone, which is commonly called smog.

The letter highlights the debilitating health defects of smog and the disproportionate impact on communities of color. The EPA’s recent proposal is to maintain the 2015 National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for smog, despite evidence that a more protective standard is needed.

Miami suffers the second-worst air quality in all of Florida, according to the American Lung Association. Growing evidence suggests that long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with adverse health outcomes including increased hospitalizations and higher death rates from COVID-19. Communities of color have been hardest hit by these adverse health outcomes.

Signers of the letter include U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., Val Demings, D-Fla., Donna Shalala, D-Fla., Darren Soto, D-Fla., and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.

Dear Administrator Wheeler:

We are writing to express our strong opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent proposal to maintain the 2015 National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ground-level ozone, which is commonly called smog.

Smog is formed when industrial pollution and exhaust from power plants, factories, cars, and other sources chemically react in the presence of heat and sunlight in the atmosphere. When inhaled, smog irritates our airways, triggers asthma attacks, and increases our risk of serious heart and lung diseases. Reducing smog pollution will protect all Americans – especially children, older adults and people active outdoors.

Since 1970, the cornerstone of the Clean Air Act has been a set of health-based national ambient air quality standards.  Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must set NAAQS for pollutants at concentration levels sufficient to protect the public health with an “adequate margin of safety” using the best available science. The Act also says these standards should protect vulnerable populations such as children and asthmatics. These standards must be based solely on considerations of public health, while accurately reflecting the latest scientific knowledge.  In essence, the NAAQS identify the level of ambient air pollution that is “safe” to breathe.

The NAAQS for smog was last updated in 2015, when EPA strengthened it from 75 to 70 parts per billion (ppb).  After five years of additional research by public health experts, the evidence is even stronger that a more protective standard of no higher than 60 ppb is needed to adequately protect Americans from smog.

According to an analysis by the American Lung Association (ALA), more than 137 million people live in areas with unhealthy levels of smog pollution. But the burden of inadequate ozone protections is not borne equally across the country.  ALA’s analysis also found that approximately 74 million people of color live in counties that “received at least one failing grade for ozone and/or particle pollution,” and that communities of color experience higher risks of harm, including premature death, from exposure to air pollution. Furthermore, growing evidence suggests that long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with adverse health outcomes including increased hospitalizations and higher death rates from COVID-19. Communities of color have been hardest hit by these adverse health outcomes.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to set NAAQS at levels to adequately protect the health of these vulnerable populations.  The current proposal falls far short of this statutory obligation.  The EPA even acknowledges that retaining the 2015 NAAQS would disproportionately harm low-income communities and communities of color that have higher rates of childhood asthma and other chronic diseases. Ignoring the harm caused by air pollution in the midst of a respiratory pandemic is especially egregious.  If EPA moves forward with this proposal, these communities will continue to suffer the disproportionate consequences of unhealthy smog levels for years to come.

EPA’s proposal to keep the current, inadequate smog pollution standard is unacceptable, and falls short of what is required by the Clean Air Act. The latest science clearly shows that a stronger limit is needed to protect public health, especially for vulnerable populations. We, therefore, call on the EPA to immediately withdraw this proposal and replace it with a more protective standard that limits harmful smog pollution and will save lives.

Thank you for considering our comments.

 

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