In a ruling issued last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the EPA’s rejection of a petition by New York and New Jersey, which cites the agency’s failure to curb excessive smog production in nine upwind states.
The petition identified nearly 350 upwind facilities producing an estimated 400 tons of pollutants per year, in turn contributing to poor air quality downwind that does not meet federal standards.
Filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James, the lawsuit claimed that under the “Good Neighbor” provisions established by the Clean Air Act, the EPA is obligated to hold those upwind states accountable for reducing their emissions.
“Today’s ruling is a major win for public health and the environment in New York,” James said in a statement. “For too long, EPA has ignored its legal responsibility to hold upwind polluters accountable for smog that travels across their borders, and as a result, millions of New Yorkers have been breathing unhealthy air.”
Amendments made in 1970 to the Clean Air Act of 1963 developed a base that produced significant improvements in the reduction of air pollution in much of the nation. The EPA was also established that same year.
According to a study by the American Lung Association (ALA), however, despite progress 8.6 million New Yorkers - along with nearly half of all Americans - are still living under poor air quality conditions 50 years later.
The recently released ALA 2020 “State of the Air” report is an analysis of data from all counties that monitor airborne pollution and relay that information to the EPA.
Findings revealed that both Queens and Brooklyn produced a failing grade for having too many high ozone days (as did the rest of the metropolitan area), which experts say is a sign of major health risks to residents.
“Ozone pollution can cause coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, even in healthy adults,” explained Paul Billings, senior vice president for Public Policy at ALA.
“It can be likened to having a bad sunburn in your lungs,” he continued, “and that makes it more difficult to breathe, but it can also render you more susceptible to respiratory infections like COVID-19.”
Billings says that air pollution in the form of ozone is estimated to kill an average of 100,000 Americans prematurely each year.
Not only does the pollutant trigger asthma attacks and lung disease flare ups, but ozone is also linked to heart attacks, stroke, lung cancer, and developmental and reproductive harm.
And much like the disparate effects of COVID-19 on particular communities, certain demographics are more vulnerable to air pollution than others.
“One of the things we are becoming keenly aware of is that not every American has enjoyed improvements to air quality equally,” said Billings. “And we know that some groups of people bear a disproportionate burden of air pollution.”
In addition to ozone levels, the 2020 “State of the Air” report recorded grades for particle pollution over both 24-hour periods and annually.
According to the report, nearly 20 million people across the country are living in counties that received failing grades in all three categories. Of those, 14 million are people of color.
“Where people live, because of patterns of racism, is a contributing factor,” Billings noted. “When we look at who is living in these front line communities, who is living near these big sources of air pollution, it’s often people of color.
“We also know that in many of these communities not only are people breathing dirtier air,” he added, “but they have less access to quality affordable health care and more underlying chronic conditions.”
In order to drive collective action regarding air pollution and climate change, ALA launched the Stand Up For Clean Air initiative, which calls on Americans to make small, individual moves toward reducing ozone pollution, such as reducing home energy use and adopting cycling as a form of transportation.
The initiative also promotes putting pressure on the EPA to set more protective pollution standards as it undergoes a public comment period through early September.
The agency recently proposed to maintain its current National Ambient Air Quality Standard, but according to Billings, the science indicates harm to health occurs at levels far below the benchmark.
“Through this process we want to call on the EPA to strengthen that standard,” he said, “and to tell people the truth about when air quality in their communities is making people ill.
“We want the public to embrace clean air and address climate change by taking personal steps,” added Billings. “But what we really need to do is engage in policy and urge local, state and federal governments to fully implement and enforce the Clean Air Act and drive pollution now.”