Report: Charlotte in country’s top ten for smog

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Unhealthy air days would double under more protective standard

Environment North Carolina Research & Policy Center

Charlotte–The Charlotte area has had more unhealthy air days in 2011 than all but seven other cities nationwide, according to a new Environment North Carolina Research & Policy Center report released today at Plaza Presbyterian Weekday School in Plaza-Midwood.  The analysis, Danger in the Air: Unhealthy Air Days in 2010 and 2011, also showed that under the more protective smog standard President Obama delayed early this month, the number of days officially considered unhealthy to breathe in Charlotte could more than double.

“North Carolinians deserve clean air.  But on far too many days, people in Charlotte, Gastonia, Salisbury and Rock Hill are exposed to dangerous smog pollution,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, Environment North Carolina State Director.  “For the sake of our children, we must make every day a safe day to breathe.”

The report reveals preliminary data showing that Charlotte area residents have already been exposed to 21 unhealthy air days in 2011.  There were 17 recorded unhealthy air days in 2010, more than those registered in Dallas, TX; Chicago, IL; Cleveland, OH; and New York, NY.

On 20 additional days in the Charlotte area last year, the report found that smog levels were considered unsafe by a national scientific panel, but because of outdated federal air quality standards, were officially considered healthy.  As a result, those at risk weren’t alerted to dangerous levels of smog pollution.

The story statewide was similar:  26 unhealthy air days were recorded across North Carolina in 2010.  But according to the latest science, the number of bad air days was actually at least 57.

The Obama administration considered updating the standard this year to protect public health, but earlier this month announced it would abandon this effort until 2013.

“Smog pollution has left our children and people with asthma, myself included, gasping for breath,” said Sarah Gay of Clean Air Carolina. “Unfortunately, rather than acting decisively to protect us from dangerous air pollution, President Obama chose to kick the can down the road.  Charlotte’s kids, senior citizens and people suffering from respiratory problems deserve better.”

Other North Carolina metropolitan areas that recorded unhealthy air days in 2010:  the Triad, with 13, the Triangle, with five, and the Hickory-Morganton area, with three bad air days.  Under a more protective air quality standard, the Triad would have recorded 16 additional bad air days; the Triangle, nine; and the Hickory area, four.

Smog, also known as ozone, is one of the most harmful and pervasive air pollutants.  Formed when pollution from cars, power plants, and industrial facilities reacts with other pollutants in the presence of sunlight, smog is most severe in the warm, summer months.

Children, the elderly, and people with respiratory illness suffer the most from high levels of smog pollution.  Children who grow up in areas with high levels of smog may develop diminished lung capacity, putting them at greater risk of lung disease later in life. Even among 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 cause premature death.

“Far too often, smog makes it unsafe for Charlotte children to play outside,” said Dr. Jessica Schorr Saxe, a Charlotte-area family physician. “It’s time to protect our health and set strong rules to reduce smog pollution.”

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency is required to set a national standard for smog pollution according to the latest science on air quality and public health.  However, the current standard was set at a level that EPA’s own board of independent scientists agree is not adequately protective of public health. 

A strong standard could save up to 12,000 lives and prevent up to 58,000 asthma attacks each year.  EPA was poised to update the standard to reflect the latest science this summer, but President Obama delayed those revised standards on September 2.

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives is poised to approve a bill to make the problem even worse.  The TRAIN Act (H.R. 2401) would roll back existing smog pollution standards for power plants.  Congresswoman Sue Myrick of Charlotte is a cosponsor of the legislation.

“We must make every day a safe day to breathe,” said Elizabeth Ouzts of Environment North Carolina.  “President Obama and North Carolina’s members of Congress should stand up for our health and oppose any attacks to the Clean Air Act, including voting against a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives this week that would roll back existing clean air protections for smog and other deadly pollutants.”