Bad summer for smog

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

When it comes to quality of life, you can’t get more critical than air quality. And Atlanta is having a rough time with it. This past smog season, lasting from May through September 30, was a bad one. The opinion column below tells us why, and why the Obama Administration’s refusal to improve standards does not help. (For the record, the EPA declined to submit a response to the issue brought up in this piece.) What do you think? Could you tell this summer’s air was awful? Let us know how it affected you.

By Rebecca Watts Hull and Jeremy Sarnat

Atlanta’s 2011 “smog season” was a pretty bad one by any measure. This year Atlanta had 39 ozone violations, or days when ozone concentrations exceeded the 2008 ozone limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under George W. Bush.

Thirty-nine violations are bad enough, but the real public health tally is actually much worse. EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), the group charged with making science-based recommendations to EPA on air quality standards, unanimously concluded that the limit for ozone should be significantly lowered. After several delays, in July EPA submitted its recommendation for a stronger standard to the White House. On Sept. 2, public health scientists and advocates were dismayed when President Obama announced that he would not consider the recommendation at this time, postponing a stronger standard for several years at least.

This decision has significant public health consequences in two ways. One, it means that Atlanta’s smog forecast system will continue to issue alerts and assign colors (green, yellow, orange or red) based on an outdated standard. As a result, on many days parents, coaches, and athletes will check the forecast and conclude an outdoor workout is safe, when in fact, the science indicates that outdoor workouts during peak ozone times should be limited.

What does this mean for Atlanta’s 2011 smog season numbers? If we use the least protective limit recommended by CASAC instead of the current limit, Atlanta actually experienced 65 smog alert days this summer. The delay in adjusting the ozone standard undermines efforts to effectively communicate risk to the public and to advocate precautions to reduce exposure.

Second, delays undermine the regulatory impact of the ozone standard. The purpose of setting health-based standards is to ensure that areas with unhealthy concentrations of air pollution take steps to improve air quality within a reasonable time frame. Since EPA expected the 2008 limit would be revised, it is only just now beginning to issue rules for states to meet that standard. It will be several years before the 2008 decision results in emissions-cutting measures in Atlanta, and even longer before we begin working toward the lower target recommended by CASAC.

What difference does it make, and to whom? The acute effects for people living with asthma and other respiratory problems may be easy to see, but ozone also is associated with widespread and less visible, chronic health problems. In addition to causing asthma attacks, shortness of breath and wheezing, ozone can cause long-term damage, reducing lung function in otherwise healthy children and youth. The health costs of acute and chronic conditions associated with ozone pollution are estimated in the billions, and there also are significant economic and quality of life consequences resulting from school absences and lost work productivity.

While the Obama administration’s decision is certainly a disappointment for public health scientists and anyone concerned about urban air pollution, it is not a time to give up. While many health hazards are largely out of our control, we know how to reduce ozone pollution. The proposed Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) project list provides an excellent opportunity for Atlanta leaders and voters to reduce vehicle emissions. If approved, this tax would provide a significant investment both in the existing transit system and in expansions to that system. The new projects together are estimated to attract tens of thousands of new transit riders, reducing road emissions responsible for roughly half of Atlanta’s ozone problem.

Every September in Atlanta we take stock and review the summer’s “smog alert” days, as we near the end of ozone season. It is time for Atlanta’s leaders and voters to choose to reach the “end of smog,” not just the “end of smog season.”

Rebecca Watts Hull is Director of Mothers & Others for Clean Air, an Atlanta-based education and advocacy nonprofit engaging parents, health care professionals and other concerned citizens in clean air initiatives and advocacy. More information at

Jeremy Sarnat is an Associate Professor of Environmental Health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.

12 comments Add your comment


October 3rd, 2011
9:58 pm

We would be well-served to remember that in a metropolitan area of over 5.5 million people, it’s just not feasible that every person can drive his car to work, shopping, soccer practice, doctors’ appointments, school and sporting events. There is a far greater price to pay for eschewing forms of public transportation that the TSPLOST can address. Just ask the child who misses school due to asthma issues; just ask the parent who has to take a day off work to stay with that child; just ask the teacher who is responsible for catching that child up on the missed instructional material. And it goes on and on until we realize the true cost of poor air quality.

Robert Krone

October 1st, 2011
7:51 am

There is every reason to believe that we’re in for more hot, dry days in the summers to come with resultant bad air. It is crucial to reduce our dependence on motor vehicles to combat this problem and more public transportation is a cornerstone to improving our air quality.