Asthma Cases Increase as Cities Continue to Ignore Federal Ozone Standards
"The majority of people living in Dallas, TX, have never breathed legally clean air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency."
That shocking truth is from Cherelle Blazer, a Dallas resident and environmental scientist. She's referring to the ground-level ozone (or smog) levels in Dallas. Ground-level ozone robs hundreds of thousands of Americans with asthma and other respiratory ailments of quality of life. It sends thousands of children to emergency rooms each year and costs us billions in healthcare costs, lost productivity and premature deaths. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently knee-deep in the process of updating our national ozone standards, and thousands of lives hang in the balance.
"We have an epic problem," says Cherelle of the smog levels in Dallas, which are well above levels considered safe to breathe by the EPA. "There is a reason asthma rates in Dallas average between 18 and 20 percent while the rest of Texas is around 9 percent. Dallas has a true triple threat of pollution—families' health is threatened by the largest concentration of cement plants to the Southeast, coal plants to the southwest, and shale gas drilling to the west. This has created the conditions for Dallas to have some of the worst air in the country."
Cherelle sees the effects of that terrible air pollution first-hand. Her eight-year-old son and her husband both have asthma and must take medicine regularly. Even she and her daughter, who are both healthy, wheeze on bad air days, she says.
"It is expensive, very inconvenient, time consuming, sometimes heart-breaking, and it can be really scary," says Cherelle. "But we have learned to live with it like so many families. Unfortunately packing the nebulizer everywhere [my son] goes has become a way of life."
There are many sleepless nights when her son’s chest hurts because his airways are constricted. Her family, like thousands of others, has to watch closely for bad air alert days when the air is unsafe to breathe.
"It's the chronic stress of watching that—knowing the ozone standard is arbitrarily high and those warnings don't even mean anything," she explains. "It could technically be a 'good air day' and the ozone level will still cause asthma attacks because the current standard is not based on current science. It makes no sense at all and it's really unfair because families can’t even protect themselves when they think they are doing everything right."
Cherelle has her own environmental consulting firm and works with local environmental and public health groups to get stronger smog standards in Texas and at the federal level via the EPA.
In late June, she joined other activists who traveled to Washington, D.C., for meetings with lawmakers and the EPA to discuss smog pollution and the harm it's causing in their communities. They made the case for a strong standard, explaining that "the best public health studies we have all say that anything above 60 parts per billion will cause respiratory illness."
This is an environmental justice battle, as she knows all too well. Cherelle has seen that fight since she was a child growing up in New Orleans in an area known as "cancer alley." She watched friends and family members die from many different diseases, and that inspired her career in environmental science.
"I was too young to have this acute awareness of pollution in my environment and what it was costing the people I loved most," said Cherelle. "I felt empowered to change that reality. There are lots of children struggling to grow up in environmental justice communities with that same awareness. I see them everyday all over North Texas and I am helping them in every way I know how."
Cherelle is truly an inspiration—I’ll let her powerful words close out this column with a call to action:
"Everyone needs clean air. You can't do anything if you can't breathe. That concept is so basic it becomes lost on people. Children can't learn and pay attention in class when they are struggling to breathe. They can't play, they can't go outside and explore. The world is no longer a magical place for a child who is fighting just to stay in it. Every time we set a clean air standard that is not protective of health we are literally ripping their childhood away from them.
"Meanwhile, Texas is number one in the country for air pollution but we are also number one in clean energy production! This tells me that bad air in Texas is a choice. We could absolutely be cleaner but it takes a strong smog standard to spur innovation, push businesses to adopt cleaner practices, and empower politicians and communities to demand better.
"There is a personal cost millions of families know all too well: every time I have to pull out the breathing machine because my son has little league practice, every time I have to go pick up his medications from the pharmacy, every time my husband and I sit down to do the budget and factor in the cost of his asthma medications, every time my son's asthma gets out of control and we have to take him to the hospital and we know that huge bill is coming... I get angry because this is not our doing but it has become our problem and it shouldn't be.
"People want energy but they don't want it with a side of death and sickness. They don't want it at any cost! I can't run a business that poisons everyone around me and neither can energy companies and other polluting industries. They don't get a pass. It is time for the full cost of doing business to rest squarely on the shoulders of the largest polluters. The people least equipped to pay—the public—have carried industries' burden for decades and is being crushed under the weight of that cost. We should all demand that EPA shift that bill over to industry."
Tell the EPA we need strong smog standards. Sign up for mobile air quality alerts and get a text message when the air is unsafe in your area. http://content.sierraclub.org/coal/mobile-air-alerts.
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By Melissa Hawkins
After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
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Gluts of food left to rot as a consequence of coronavirus aren't just wasteful – they're also likely to damage the environment.
Methane on the Rise<p>Not only is this a tragic waste of food at a time when many are going hungry, it is also an <a href="https://donatedontdump.net/2014/07/07/the-effects-of-food-waste-on-the-environment-by-junemy-pantig/" target="_blank">environmental hazard</a> and could contribute to global warming. Landfill gas – <a href="https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas" target="_blank">roughly half methane and half carbon dioxide (CO2)</a> – is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material.</p>
Food decay leads to production of greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide. EPA<p>Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 28 to <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full.pdf" target="_blank">36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat</a> in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.</p><p>"Many export-oriented producers produce volumes far too large for output to be absorbed in local markets, and thus <a href="https://unctad.org/en/pages/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=2333" target="_blank">organic waste levels have mounted substantially</a>," says Robert Hamwey, Economic Affairs Officer at UN agency UNCTAD. "Because this waste is left to decay, levels of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, from decaying produce are expected to rise sharply in the crisis and immediate post-crisis months."</p>
Food supply chains are easily disrupted. UN FAO<p>Dumping food was already a problem before the crisis. In America alone, <a href="https://www.refed.com/?sort=economic-value-per-ton" target="_blank">$218 billion is spent growing, processing, transporting</a> and disposing of food that is never eaten, estimates ReFED, a collection of business, non-profit and government leaders committed to reducing food waste. That's equivalent to around 1.3% of GDP.</p><p>Since the pandemic took hold, <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52267943" target="_blank">farmers are dumping 14 million liters</a> of milk each day because of disrupted supply routes, estimates Dairy Farmers of America. A chicken processor was forced to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html" target="_blank">destroy 750,000 unhatched eggs a week</a>, according to the New York Times, which also cited an onion farmer letting most of his harvest decompose because he couldn't distribute or store them.</p>
Food Prices Collapsing<p>The excess has also seen prices collapse. The <a href="http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/" target="_blank">FAO Food Price Index</a> (FFPI) averaged 162.5 points in May 2020, down 3.1 points from April and reaching the lowest monthly average since December 2018. The gauge has dropped for four consecutive months, and the latest decline reflects falling values of all the food commodities – dairy, meat, cereal, vegetable – except sugar, which rose for the first time in three months.</p><p>All this while the pandemic is exacerbating other global food trends.</p><p>"This year, some 49 million extra people may fall into extreme poverty due to the COVID-19 crisis," said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN. "The number of people who are acutely food or nutrition insecure will rapidly expand. <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGhLKAbNDiY&feature=youtu.be" target="_blank">Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruptions in the food supply chain</a>."</p>
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