OP-ED: Dr. Stephen Maxwell – EPA must tighten up controls on smog

Special to The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento, CA (February 6, 2010)

As a lung surgeon, I encounter the corrosive damage of smog in my patients on a daily basis. Smog burns lung tissue, making these essential membranes red and inflamed.

As a physician I know the human costs are too high to delay reducing this threat any longer. Smog shortens the lives of people like my patients. Smog hits the most vulnerable people especially hard, including infants, children and teens, as well as adults with lung disease.

As a Californian, I applaud the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to tighten the limits on ozone "smog" pollution.

Here in the Sacramento region, we experience the sixth-worst air quality in the nation. Smog is an unwelcome intruder in our daily lives. The onset of summer means more than just swimming and sunscreen for my patients and the hundreds of thousands of Sacramento-area residents who suffer from asthma or other chronic lung illnesses.

For them, summer ozone simply makes it harder to breathe. They cough and wheeze; they gasp for air. They are rushed to the emergency room and admitted to the hospital.

Aside from the personal trauma of these emergencies, the additional medical needs add a tremendous burden to our already overstretched health care system and additional costs to family budgets.

Fortunately, it does not have to be this way. The EPA is considering stronger ozone standards that would better protect the public from the serious toll ozone smog imposes. If the EPA adopts a stronger limit on ozone, it would mean cleaner air for our state and greatly improve the health of all Californians.

Smog remains one of the most widespread and dangerous air pollutants across California and the country. In fact, according to the American Lung Association State of the Air report, six of the 10 most polluted cities for ozone in the United States are in California, threatening the health of millions of our fellow residents. We need to tell the EPA that we need a stronger standard now.

Here in California, we've led the nation in adopting the cutting-edge pollution controls needed to meet these tighter standards. While we have much more work to do, California has demonstrated that we have real and proven strategies to cut pollution and provide more protection for people like my patients.

In 2008, the EPA's independent science experts unanimously recommended the standards proposed now. Then, the EPA ignored its scientists and set a standard that allowed much more ozone pollution. It disregarded the strong body of research on ozone that clearly demonstrates that the weaker standard failed to meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act. It discounted the evidence that the weaker standard put millions of people at risk for health emergencies.

Fortunately, they have reconsidered. EPA is now proposing a much stronger standard between 60 and 70 parts per billion, a level that would result in substantial improvements to the public's health.

The EPA's proposal is a prescription for a healthier nation and longer lives for future generations. That's why the American Lung Association and other health and medical organizations are urging the EPA to adopt the most protective standard when the EPA makes its final decision in August: 60 parts per billion. Californians also demonstrated strong support for these tighter standards at a recent EPA hearing in Sacramento.

My patients need this protection. And so do I. There's evidence that even healthy adults like me experience decreased pulmonary function – meaning, our lungs don't work as well – when we breathe ozone while exercising. This is true even if ozone levels are much, much lower than the levels we regularly experience here in the summer in Sacramento.

I strongly encourage the EPA to follow the science and prescribe the most health-protective ozone standards for our national air quality. It is good medicine and we will all be healthier because of it.

Dr. Stephen Maxwell, a surgeon at Mercy San Juan Medical Center, is a volunteer for the American Lung Association.