Houston’s health at risk with 107 dirty air days in 2016

Media Contacts
Brian Zabcik

Clean air advocates decry environmental rollbacks at state, federal level

Environment Texas

HOUSTON – Preliminary data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows that Houston experienced an uptick in unhealthy smog days in 2016, increasing the risk of asthma attacks and other health problems. The finding comes as President Trump and a Texas lawmaker have begun separate efforts to weaken air quality protections.

“Even one day with unhealthy air is too many,” said Brian Zabcik, Clean Air and Water Advocate for Environment Texas. “Going backwards on clean air is reckless and wrong. We should be doing more to clean up pollution and develop clean energy, not less.”

A new report from Environment Texas Research & Policy Center, Our Health at Risk: Why Are Millions of Americans Still Breathing Unhealthy Air?, finds that in 2015, people in Houston experienced 101 days with unhealthy levels of ozone, while preliminary data from the EPA shows that number increased to 107 days in 2016.

Environment Texas pointed to illegal air emissions – at least 5 million pounds of pollutants resulting from 405 breakdown and maintenance incidents at petrochemical facilities in the Houston metro area in 2015 – as a significant contributor to the region’s air quality problems. Environment Texas is currently suing two Houston-area facilities, ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery and chemical plants, and Pasadena Refining’s Pasadena refinery.

Unfortunately, state Representative Charlie Geren of Fort Worth has proposed HB 2533 to make it harder for local governments and citizen groups to sue to hold polluters accountable for environmental violations.

In addition, President Trump is taking an axe to important programs that could help clean up our air. In just the last month, the Trump Administration has:

  • Instructed the EPA to rewrite the Clean Power Plan, the largest step the United States has ever taken to cut dangerous global warming pollution;
  • Proposed to cut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent, a “get out of jail free card” for polluters;
  • Instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back federal clean cars standards that were supposed to prevent 6 billion metric tons of global warming pollution; and
  • Told the Department of Interior to rewrite air pollution regulations for oil and gas drilling.

These actions will have significant health impacts. Blocking the Clean Power Plan alone will slow progress in cleaning our air – leading to 3,600 additional premature deaths, 90,000 more asthma attacks in children, and 300,000 more missed work and school days by 2030.

“Air pollution takes a toll on breathing, heart health, and brain health,” said Dr. Harold Farber, a pediatric pulmonologist at Texas Children’s Hospital. “Many chemicals in air pollution increase the risk for cancer. The way we use energy – and especially fossil fuel – is the major contributor to air pollution. Rather than digging in our heels to the past of dirty energy, Houston needs to embrace and lead the future in clean and efficient energy. Our future as a healthy, thriving energy metropolis demands no less.”

The report comes during National Public Health Week, a celebration of efforts to tackle the underlying causes of disease – like air pollution – and ensure that all people have a chance to live long and healthy lives.

“The release of the report is very timely during National Public Health Week,” said Bakeyah Nelson, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston. “From a public health perspective, the report highlights why it is important to not only maintain but also strengthen our efforts to improve air quality.  We should all be concerned that the 2015 ozone levels for Houston are worse than they have been in the past several years.  Given that existing policies have helped to prevent thousands of premature death and improve quality of life, it is detrimental to public health to erode the environmental regulations that we have in place to protect the health of our communities.”

Our Health at Risk reviews EPA records of air pollution levels across the country, focusing on smog and soot – dangerous pollutants that come from burning dirty fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. Key findings include:

  • People in the Houston metro area experienced 101 days with elevated smog pollution and 171 days with elevated soot pollution in 2015. Preliminary data from the EPA for 2016 find that Houston had an increase in unhealthy smog days (107) and fewer unhealthy days (102) with unhealthy levels of soot in 2016.
  • Houston ranked 1st in the state for worst soot pollution in 2015, with almost twice as many sooty days as Dallas (the number 2 region with 98 days).
  • Across Texas, ten metro areas had unhealthy levels of air pollution on at least 13 days during 2015.