On Dec. 23 the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) administrator finalized a rule that retains 5-year-old ozone standards for air quality. This decision contrasts with the growing body of evidence that the ozone is more dangerous than previously recognized and concerns that the current standards fail to provide an adequate margin of safety for human health.
Many were first acquainted with the ozone in the 1980s when international concern about the depletion of stratospheric ozone – the Earth’s protective “sunscreen” – prompted legislation to curb use of ozone-depleting substances like chlorofluorocarbons. By 2019, the ozone hole had shrunk to the smallest size since first discovered in 1982.
Unlike the ozone in the stratosphere that protects human health, ground-level ozone is an air pollutant that damages respiratory, cardiovascular and central nervous systems, impairs reproduction and development, and worsens conditions like Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. Ozone also harms the plants, insects and soil microbes that keep our environments productive and healthy.
Given all the challenges we face today, why should we care about this rule right now?
The number of people in the U.S. exposed to ozone pollution continues to rise. The 2020 State of the Air report shows that four of every 10 Americans are exposed to unhealthy levels of ozone, approximately 3 million more people than in last year’s report. Over 137 million people live in counties that earned an “F” for ozone, and exposure is rising in rural areas too. Research shows that the number of high ozone days in urban areas and national parks are now comparable, especially in summer and fall.
Air pollution is an environmental justice issue. Not only are people of color and/or with low incomes disproportionately exposed to unhealthy levels of ozone pollution, but they already suffer many of the comorbidities that increase the health risks posed by elevated ozone. In fact, people of color comprise half of those living within counties graded as “F” for ozone, with some failing counties exceeding 85 percent.
People exposed to air pollution are more vulnerable to and face increased risk of mortality from COVID-19. Weak air quality standards threaten to increase COVID-19 deaths and exacerbate health disparities. For this reason, Ann Weeks, legal director at the Clean Air Task Force, considered the act of finalizing this rule during a respiratory pandemic to be “morally unconscionable”.
The U.S. economy doesn’t need to bear the high cost of air pollution from health care costs, lost productivity and reduced economic growth, which collectively total $1 trillion annually. Spending to reduce pollution saves money in the long run. The Clean Air Act, in particular, cost $65 billion to implement but saved $2 trillion – a 30-fold savings – in avoided costs.
Air pollution can imperil birds, many of which are experiencing steep population declines. Last year the world was shocked to learn that nearly one-third of North American birds (3 billion) were lost since 1970. Now in a recent study my colleagues and I show that elevated ozone is associated with bird declines.
Why should this matter to those without an affection for birds? Birds provide us with many ecosystem services, such as controlling insect pests that damage crops, kill massive numbers of trees and bite us. And birds are a powerful economic engine; over 45 million people in the U.S. spend $80 billion each year on bird-watching activities. The ozone-reduction efforts of the Clean Air Act are estimated to have averted the loss of an additional 1.5 billion birds – or nearly 20 percent of all birds in the U.S. – over the last four decades.
The masks we wear today make us more aware than ever of the air we breathe. We can do more to make that air clean – for us all.
Amanda D. Rodewald is the Garvin professor and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and faculty fellow at Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. Views expressed in this column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.