Dangerous Air Alert: New Analysis Shows How the Trump Administration Could Hide the Health Risks of Bad Air Days
By Andrew Rosenberg
We all check the weather forecast for sun, rain, UV, allergies and other information that might affect us as we spend more time outside in the summer. That includes alerts on bad air days, when air pollution levels are high enough to be potentially dangerous, especially for children, those with respiratory concerns like asthma and the elderly.
Indeed, there is a nice little numbered, color-coded scale for air quality that warns us when extra caution is needed. Ever wonder where that comes from?
The standards used to determine air quality refer to the average amount of a pollutant in the air. Keeping air quality below a standard determined to be bad for your health is an obviously good idea—as is being aware of when the air is bad or unhealthy. Alerts of bad air days are those that exceed the standard, telling us to watch out!
But now, changes underway at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may make it less likely you'll see a bad air day warning—even when the air is still unhealthy to breathe. That's because the Trump administration is planning on reconsidering the standard for ozone, despite the fact that the science clearly shows that doing so would cause harm.
If the administration is successful in its efforts, we determined how many fewer bad air alerts you'd get if you lived in 19 different metropolitan areas.
Ozone is Dangerous Stuff
Ozone is a critical pollutant in those bad air days the weather forecasters tell us about.
In response to clear scientific evidence that ozone causes harm, especially to children and those with respiratory ailments, the national standard for ozone was lowered in 1997 from 120 to 80 parts per billion (ppb).
Then in 2014, EPA proposed strengthening the standard again to between 65 and 70ppb. The agency received 430,000 public comments on the proposal, with the scientific evidence clearly pointing to the need for a stronger standard. In 2015, the EPA compromised and set the standard at 70 ppb.
That move was opposed by several states, mostly those with large oil and gas industries, and the US Chamber of Commerce and other business groups. In 2017 EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who had opposed the standard on behalf of Oklahoma, announced he would delay implementation for the 70 ppb standard pending a new review. Sixteen states objected and Pruitt allowed the standard to go into effect but remained intent on re-reviewing it.
On June 21, the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing on regulating ozone pollution. The committee chairman's opening statement makes it clear that some still seem to believe that protecting public health and having a vibrant economy are incompatible—his statement was full of language about the need to rollback the ozone standard from 70 ppb.
And unfortunately, the Trump administration is taking a lot of actions that undermine the progress we have made on cleaning up the air we breathe, as my colleagues Drs. Gretchen Goldman and Juan Declet-Baretto have written.
It's clear that the EPA seems bound and determined to re-review the basis for the 70 ppb ozone standard, and are likely to argue it is too stringent. Indeed, some of the agency's leading science advisors including the Chair of the Science Advisory Board, Dr. Michael Honeycutt, have even argued—contrary to public health science—that the health impacts of ozone aren't that bad .
Hiding the Health Risks of Bad Air Days
If industry and their allies have their way and the standard was raised to, say, 75 ppb as they have previously argued, what do we know about the impacts on public health?
We did a simple analysis to answer the question, "How many days in major cities would be considered 'safe' under a new standard even when they weren't according to our current standard?" Put another way, if you followed the weather warnings of bad air days to potentially limit your kids' time outdoors, how many days would you believe the air to be healthy when it really wasn't because the standards have changed?
The numbers for major cities should worry us all. Here's our look at 19 major metropolitan areas across the country—and how many fewer bad air alerts they would have received since 2015 with a weaker ozone standard in place. In multiple places, nearly a month's worth of days would have been unhealthy without warning–an indicator of the potential impact that weakening the ozone standard would have over the coming years.
Click on any city to see how many fewer days would have been classified as bad air days, even though the air was still unhealthy to breathe (2015–present).
The number of "bad air" ozone days was calculated using downloaded data from the EPA's website that listed daily Air Quality Index (AQI) values. Ozone AQI values are subdivided into six categories based on the EPA's ozone standards and its effect on human health. In a selection of major metropolitan areas, including several where we and our partners and supporters live and work, we calculated the numbers of days from 2015 to the present that would have been labeled as "moderate" instead of "unhealthy for sensitive groups" under a weakened ozone standard (75 parts per billion), thereby escaping detection by the public.
From high to low, the cities with the most number of days affected are: Los Angeles (91), Phoenix (63), Las Vegas (45), Dallas (39), New York (37), Atlanta (28), Chicago (28), Houston (28), Pittsburgh (24), Philadelphia (22), Cincinnati (21), St. Louis (21), Cleveland (19), Washington, DC (19), Detroit (15), Kansas City (11), Boston (10) and Miami (7).
What Does That Mean in Terms of Overall Health Impacts?
According to the EPA's own estimates, after 2025, changing the standard is conservatively expected to annually result in:
- 280,000 lost school days
- 390,000 asthma exacerbations
- 440 to 880 premature deaths
Economically, they estimate that weakening the standard would result in the loss of $2.9 to 5.9 billion annually after 2025. Clearly this does not benefit anyone in the long-run.
This is just one example of the many ways the Trump administration is working to harm our health—and it shows yet again the importance for all of us to be vigilant, and to call out and comment, when we see it happening. You can learn more ways to become engaged in our Action Center.
Andrew Rosenberg is the director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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