Report finds dangerous smog levels in Chicago, St. Louis areas

September 23, 2011

Online Staff Report

CHICAGO — Environment Illinois released a new report Sept. 22 finding dangerous levels of smog pollution in Chicago, the St. Louis area, and across Illinois.

The new report, “Danger in the Air: Unhealthy Air Days in 2010 and 2011,” shows Chicagoland residents were exposed to air pollution levels that made it dangerous to breathe on 10 days in 2010.

In the St. Louis metropolitan area, there were 23 such days, ranking it the seventh-smoggiest large metropolitan area in the country.

Smog is a harmful air pollutant that leads to asthma attacks and exacerbates respiratory illnesses, especially among children and the elderly.

Environment Illinois’ Bruce Ratain explained: “Illinoisans deserve clean air. But on far too many days, people in the Chicago and St. Louis areas are exposed to dangerous smog pollution. For the sake of our children, we must make every day a safe day to breathe.”

In the summer of 2011, Chicagoland residents were alerted to unhealthy air on 15 days. Residents of the East-Metro area near St. Louis were alerted to 23 such days this summer, including two “Red Alert” days, when the air quality was so poor that anyone could experience adverse health effects. (Note that this 2011 data is based on slightly larger geographical areas than the 2010 data.) Wood River, Ill., had the largest number of unhealthy days this summer, with a total of eight.

The report includes new data showing that the problem is even worse than the public thought. The research shows that on 10 additional days last year, residents in the Chicago area were exposed to smog levels that a national scientific panel has found to be dangerous to breathe, but because of outdated federal air quality rules, those at risk were never alerted to unhealthy air levels. In the St. Louis area, there were 18 such additional days.

Smog is one of the most harmful air pollutants, and is also one of the most pervasive. Smog is formed when pollution from cars, power plants and industrial facilities reacts with other pollutants in the presence of sunlight. Smog is of particular concern in the summer months when warmer temperatures lead to the build-up of higher concentrations of smog pollution.

Elevated smog pollution most harms children, the elderly and people with respiratory illnesses. Children who grow up in areas with high levels of smog may develop diminished lung capacity, putting them at greater risk of lung disease later in life. Additionally, children exposed to smog in the womb can experience lower birth weight and growth retardation. Even among healthy adults, repeated exposure to smog pollution over time permanently damages lung tissues, decreases the ability to breathe normally, exacerbates chronic diseases like asthma, and can even cause premature death.

The science is clear; asthma attacks and fatalities from asthma increase on days when air pollution is at its worst,” said Dr. Susan Buchanan, director of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to set a national standard for smog pollution according to the latest science on air quality and public health. However, the current standard was set at a level that EPA’s own board of independent scientists agree is not adequately protective of public health. The Barack Obama administration considered updating the standard this year to protect public health, but the president decided earlier this month to abandon this effort until 2013. Environment Illinois and prominent public health groups expressed deep disappointment with his decision.

Brian Urbaszewski, director of Environmental Health Programs at the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, said, “Despite claims that EPA’s action will only delay a valid ozone health standard for two years, history shows that it could be delayed by a decade or more, putting millions of Illinoisans at risk.”

Ratain added: “For too long, smog pollution has left our children gasping for breath. Unfortunately, rather than acting decisively to protect our kids from dangerous air pollution, President Obama chose to kick the can down the road. Illinois’ kids, senior citizens and those suffering from respiratory problems will suffer as a consequence, and certainly deserve better.”

Environment Illinois called on President Obama to protect the health of Illinois’ children and seniors, and to establish an updated standard for smog pollution that is based on the science. A strong standard could save up to 12,000 lives and prevent up to 58,000 asthma attacks each year. At the same time, polluters and their allies in the House of Representatives are threatening to make the problem even worse by pushing a bill this week — the TRAIN Act (H.R. 2401) — to roll back existing smog pollution standards for power plants.

Ratain concluded: “We must make every day a safe day to breathe. President Obama and Illinois’ members of Congress should stand up for Illinoisans’ health and oppose any attacks to the Clean Air Act, including by voting against a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives this week that would roll back existing clean air protections for smog and other deadly pollutants. And this is especially important for Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, because he could be a deciding vote on similar clean air rollback votes in the U.S. Senate.”

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