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 Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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