New Report: Smog-Forming Pollution a Major Threat to Americans’ Health, Environment

Media Contacts
Nathan Willcox

Environment America Research & Policy Center

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Power Plants across the United States emit nearly 2 million tons of smog-forming pollution every year, with power plants in the top 11 most polluting states, including Texas, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio, responsible for 50 percent of the total emissions of the pollutant, according to a new Environment America research and Policy Center report, “Dirty Energy’s Assault on Our Health: Ozone Pollution”. 

The report comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set to finalize a standard in July to help reduce smog-forming pollution through the Clean Air Act which is fielding attacks from some in Congress. “I find it unconscionable that in the year 2011 the Clean Air Act is being attacked by big polluters and their allies in Congress who want to gut this successful public health law. We know the very real health benefits of cleaner air, and that is why I introduced a Resolution, S. Res. 119, with 33 co-sponsors, to fight back against efforts to deregulate polluters,” said Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“Taking a breath should not leave America’s children gasping for air,” said Lauren Randall, Global Warming Associate with Environment America. “Smog-forming pollution from power plants puts our children and our environment at risk, and the Environmental Protection Agency must act to reduce this life-threatening pollution.”

Power plants create the ingredients for dangerous smog pollution. They emit tons of nitrogen oxides into our air, which then chemically react with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight to form ozone pollution, commonly referred to as smog. Environment America’s report examined the latest research on the public health and environmental impacts of smog, and used data from the Environmental Protection Agency to determine how much smog-forming pollution was being emitted by power plants across the country.  

Environment America research found that:

  • As we enter the warmer summer months, smog becomes of particular concern because strong sunlight and hot weather result in the build-up of dangerous smog concentrations. According to the American Lung Association, more than half the people in the United States live in areas with unhealthy levels of smog pollution. 
  • Children who grow up in areas with high levels of smog pollution may develop diminished lung capacity, putting them at greater risk of lung disease later in life. Additionally, children who are exposed to smog pollution in the womb can experience lower birth weight and growth retardation. Even for healthy adults, repeated exposure to smog pollution over time permanently damages lung tissues, decreases the ability to breathe normally, exacerbates chronic diseases like asthma, and can even kill.
  • Smog harms our environment by negatively affecting species’ habitats in watersheds like the Chesapeake Bay, impairing visibility in national parks like the Shenandoah, and damaging forests. Smog exposure reduces yields for economically important crops such as soybeans, kidney beans, wheat, and cotton.

Environment America was joined by members of the public health community in releasing today’s report.

“Smog puts Americans’ lives on the line,” said Dr. William Rom, a member of the American Thoracic Society.  “It’s time to protect our health and reduce dangerous smog-forming pollution from Power Plants across the country.”

Anna Silva, a nurse, and mother of a 10-year-old with asthma shared some of her story. “My family lives downwind of a power plant and I notice my son gets much sicker in the hot summer months when smog pollution is at its worst. To date, we have spent about $75,000 on medical expenses, and we are praying EPA will strengthen smog standards to protect my son’s health,” Silva said.

The report comes as EPA is set to finalize a standard in July to help reduce smog pollution. Environment America is calling on EPA to protect our health and our environment, and to establish an air quality standard for smog pollution of no higher than 60 parts per billion. This stringent air standard will adequately reflect how much smog can be in the air and still have it safe to breathe, and could save up to 12,000 lives per year according to EPA analysts. To achieve this standard, the United States should install and improve pollution control technologies for power plants and accelerate the transition to clean electricity sources—while also reducing smog-forming pollution from vehicles by expanding public transportation systems and putting cleaner cars and trucks on the road.

Yet while EPA is undertaking this rulemaking to protect public health, Congress and industry lobbyists are working to keep EPA from doing its job by threatening to block rules that limit dangerous air pollution. Late in the last Congress, Arkansas Representative Mike Ross circulated a letter asking EPA Administrator Jackson to uphold the 2008 federal smog standard of 75 parts per billion that puts public health at risk. While there have not been any similar attacks to prevent EPA from finalizing an updated smog standard in this Congress, it is likely that there will be more attacks as the EPA’s deadline to finalize the standard in July approaches.

“All Americans have the right to breathe clean air,” said Randall. Congress should stand up for Americans and support EPA standards that protect our health and the health of our children.”