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Americans Breathe Dangerous Levels of Smog

From Larry West,
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Smog Affects More Than 158 Million Americans in 10 States

Well over half of all people living in 10 of the United States’ 11 most populous states—more than 158 million Americans—live in areas where the smog is so bad that pollution levels routinely exceed safety standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to a study by the Center for American Progress and the Center for Progressive Reform that examines state enforcement of clean air laws.

The report, Paper Tigers and Killer Air: How Weak Enforcement Leaves Communities Vulnerable to Smog [pdf], released in November 2006, shows that in five of the 10 states that were studied, more than 75 percent of the population lives in counties that fail to attain EPA air quality standards. In one state, New Jersey, every single resident suffers from excessive ground-level ozone, or smog. California and New York were not far behind, with 94 percent and 85 percent respectively. These findings are consistent with those of the annual State of the Air report published by the American Lung Association early in 2006.

Too Few State Inspectors to Enforce Air Quality Standards
The report also reveals that state environmental agencies in the 10 profiled states lack a sufficient number of inspectors to monitor industrial emissions and enforce the law—in large part due to declining federal grants to state and local air quality agencies, which are primarily responsible for enforcing federal clean air standards.

Collectively, these 10 states (California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas) have more than 158,000 sites with permits to emit ozone pollution. At the same time, they report having fewer than 1,100 inspectors, which means that on average each inspector is responsible for inspecting 145 permitted facilities. California and Texas each have more than 50,000 permitted polluting facilities, dwarfing the other most populous states, and they also have the worst ratio of polluting facilities to inspectors: Texas has only one inspector for every 352 sites, while California has 166 sites per inspector.

“When it comes to ozone pollution, the cop is off the beat,” said report co-author Rena Steinzor, a member of the board of the Center for Progressive Reform and a law professor at the University of Maryland, in a press release. “Laws that aren’t enforced aren’t respected. Local restaurants and beauty parlors, and even cars in many states, must be inspected far more often than major polluters. No wonder the nation’s children suffer from an epidemic of asthma. EPA and the states’ approach makes it much easier for polluters to cut corners, avoid expenses, violate permit terms, and thus emit more air pollution than they are allowed. If the IRS took the same approach, the nation would go broke.”

Cutbacks in Inspection Funding and Requirements Increase Pollution Risks
The low number of state inspectors is partly due to cutbacks in federal funding. Since 1993, federal grants to state and local air quality agencies have declined by 25 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to the authors of the report, and President Bush’s FY 2007 budget calls for another cut of $15.6 million from a current budget of $172.7 million.

Equally problematic is the Bush administration’s lax approach to ensuring air quality. Upon taking office in 2001, the Bush administration made significant changes to air quality enforcement, which included relaxing inspection requirements on states. Under the new rules, states are required to inspect pollution sources—including factories spewing tens of thousands of tons of harmful air pollutants—no more than once every five years.

“America’s children are paying the price for this neglect,” said Reece Rushing, associate director for regulatory policy at the Center for American Progress, in a press release. “During ‘code red’ or ‘code orange’ days, parents are faced with an absurd choice—keep their children indoors when they could be out playing or risk exposing them to unsafe air. We can solve this problem. But we must take steps to strengthen state enforcement of clean air standards. The new Congress has an opportunity to set a new course by renewing federal investment in state and local air quality agencies and insisting on more frequent inspections.”

Breathing Smog Carries Serious Health Risks
Smog is known to cause or aggravate a number of diseases or respiratory illnesses. According to the report, the number of people living in areas with unsafe air includes 16.6 million children under the age of 10 and 6.2 million people who are 75 and older. In addition, the American Lung Association estimates that these counties are home to 9 million people who suffer from asthma, 3.5 million people who suffer from chronic bronchitis, and 1.3 million people who suffer from emphysema. The EPA identifies all of these groups as being particularly sensitive to the adverse health effects of ground-level ozone exposure.

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