An estimated 25 deaths each year in the Triangle from health problems caused by poor air quality could be prevented by reducing ozone pollution to levels recommended by the American Thoracic Society, according to a report released by the society and the New York University Marron Institute for Urban Management.
The 2016 “Health of the Air” report is the first of a planned annual series on the public health impacts of air quality in more than 1,000 counties across the country. The authors hope that a yearly report card on air quality and its health impacts will allow the public to track how deaths and injuries due to air pollution change over time.
“By doing this each year, we allow cities to track their progress and provide a tool for management to use to make good air quality decisions,” said Kevin Cromar, professor of urban management at NYU and an author of the report.
There’s been a big improvement in air quality across North Carolina in the past 15 years, largely due to stricter emissions rules for power plants and less-polluting automobiles, says state Division of Air Quality spokesperson Tom Mather.
Before the early 1990s, the Triangle exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone standards about 30 days a year. Now, the region rarely exceeds the federal standard. It happened on two days last summer, and not at all in 2013 and 2014.
But the American Thoracic Society, a non-profit focused on breathing issues and improving care for lung diseases, recommends stricter standards for ozone and particulate pollution than the current EPA levels. Durham and Wake counties met the society’s standard for particle pollution, but exceeded its recommendation for ozone. The study doesn’t specify ways to meet the standard or say what it would cost.
The EPA’s current standard for ozone is 70 parts per billion over an 8-hour period; ATS recommends a stricter standard of 60 parts per billion. Meeting that lower threshold could prevent more than 6,400 deaths a year, more than half of them in California.
Ozone is best known as the gas that blocks UV rays. In the stratosphere, ozone is made when an oxygen compound takes on a third oxygen molecule by absorbing a UV ray’s energy, energy that would go into a sunburn if it can pass through the atmosphere.
Closer to the Earth’s surface, ozone is created when sun interacts with hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide pollutants, producing the main ingredient in smog. Because its chemistry is similar to oxygen, ozone is retained in our lungs more than other pollutants.
Dr. David Peden, a pediatrics professor at the UNC School of Medicine and director of the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology, said poor air quality affects health because “pollution is like the world smoking.”
Peden says the elderly and those with existing lung damage are most likely to suffer from health problems due to ozone. Ozone can cause lung inflammation, heart problems and asthma. People with diabetes are more susceptible to heart failure when breathing in ozone. He says that problems can develop within three days of exposure.
Studies have shown that communities that meet the EPA standard are less likely to suffer from health problems associated with high ozone levels, but it’s not clear what the ideal ozone levels would be. Dr. George Thurston, professor of environmental medicine at NYU School of Medicine, compared the recommended ozone levels to a speed limit and said finding the right standard is about minimizing risk.
“We have not been able to find the lower threshold below which there are no health effects from ozone,” Thurston said.
Stephen Ginley: 919-829-4520