School’s Out, Bad Air’s In

Smog Could Put a Damper on Summer Vacations This Year

Summer smog puts our children at risk, write Jorge Madrid and Susan Lyon. Support EPA’s proposed rules to limit pollution and fight this problem.

Kids enjoy the fountain at Chicago's Millennium Park. Smog and power plant toxics could aggravate asthma and other respiratory problems in children this summer as the weather heats up. (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
Kids enjoy the fountain at Chicago's Millennium Park. Smog and power plant toxics could aggravate asthma and other respiratory problems in children this summer as the weather heats up. (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

It’s a classic anthem that much of America’s youth can’t wait to celebrate:

School’s out for summer! School’s out forever!

Act: Urge the EPA to clean up our air now

Take action for clean air now!

Please submit a public comment to the EPA in support of strong air toxics rules here, urging further action to clean up our air and thanking them for their proposed safeguards.

Many young people will be spending less time in the classroom and more time having fun outdoors as the school year draws to a close and the summer weather heats up. Unfortunately, this seasonal reprieve from classrooms, tests, and homework could be putting millions of American children’s health in harm’s way.

Summer “smog,” or ground-level ozone, forms in hot weather, aggravating asthma and other breathing problems particularly for children spending increased time outdoors. Hot, sunny days provide the perfect condition for smog levels to go through the roof—resulting in “code red” days, meaning that outdoor activities should be severely restricted, especially for young children and the elderly.

And it’s not just summer smog: Asthma rates and other respiratory problems are higher in places with bad air quality year round. Though asthma has no known cure, it is severely aggravated by dirty air and can be controlled by limiting exposure to asthma triggers such as smog and toxic air pollutants from coal-fired power plants.

The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, is already working on tightening pollution standards for both ozone and power plant air toxics. These two proposals are both critical to cleaning up our air. But in the meantime, as we head into summer months, children and families need to be especially careful about limiting exposure to bad air and dangerous pollutants by monitoring the Air Quality Index and staying indoors at peak pollution times.

Our kids need clean air

Smog combines with unchecked toxic emissions from power plants to create a problem serious enough to warrant an official hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works this month. As discussed by experts and lawmakers, including Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) and several medical professionals, summertime is the season for the nation’s most dangerous air quality—particularly for children:

The summer smog season … is a powerful reminder of how important it is to have clean air to breathe. Smog-causing air pollution from dirty power plants, automobiles, and other sources is linked to serious health problems like asthma, strokes, heart attacks—and even early deaths. Millions of our kids ride a bus to school, play on a playground or live in a community that exposes them to high levels of ozone, particle pollution or air toxics.

Dona J. Upson, M.D., a pulmonologist and critical care physician with the American Lung Association, testified that air pollution is especially dangerous to children because their lungs are growing and because they are so active:

I’m here to tell you that children may look like miniature adults, but they’re not. For many reasons, they deserve special protection, including the cleanup of major pollution sources in the nation—most particularly, power plants. Power plants add hundreds of thousands of tons of dangerous air pollution to the air, threatening the most vulnerable among us, our children. … just like the arms and legs, the largest portion of a child’s lungs will grow long after he or she is born.

A 2008 USA Today investigation used an EPA model to identify and map hundreds of schools where the air appeared to be rife with industrial pollution and toxic chemicals. The EPA has taken notice and strong action on this issue, and it is in the process of assessing the dangers from air pollution around schools. Their findings, Administrator Lisa Jackson argues, underscore the need for more extensive air monitoring especially in pollution hot spots.

A recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report on respiratory hospitalizations in areas near power plants finds:

Pollutants associated with power plant emissions have been linked to a variety of respiratory problems including irritation of the airways, difficulty breathing and decreased lung function. In general, the effect of pollutants is more severe among persons with preexisting respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); persons with cardiovascular disease; and among older adults and children.

Nationwide, particulate pollution from power plants has been recently estimated to kill approximately 13,000 people a year. Because of both their age and exposure levels, children are especially at risk.

EPA’s proposed air toxics standards can help

Fortunately, the EPA has a plan of action for all Americans to protect the health of our nation’s youth—particularly critical during the summer months.

The agency is proposing its first-ever air toxics standards for coal-fired power plants. The proposed rule would limit emissions of mercury, arsenic, and several other hazardous air toxics from power plants for the first time. These common-sense safeguards, which were called for in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments but never implemented, are long overdue. Toxic mercury, arsenic, and 84 other pollutants have been spewing uncontrolled from power plants even though we know how bad they are.

Adoption of the air toxics rule will prevent approximately 17,000 premature deaths, 120,000 asthma attacks, and 12,000 hospitalizations and emergency room visits every year, according to the EPA. It is essential in limiting some of the key pollutants that aggravate asthma in children and adults.

The Center for American Progress Action Fund, CAP’s sister organization, has launched a campaign to urge the EPA to get mercury and arsenic out of our air by finalizing their proposed safeguards. The EPA is accepting public comments on the rule until July 5, 2011, and you can submit one here. Comments can also be submitted in Spanish here.


Though conservative leaders, Big Oil, and their congressional allies are gearing up their attacks on the EPA—threatening to restrict its rulemaking authorities, or even to abolish it —they cannot deny the evidence of its immense health successes. Despite progress in recent decades, though, our air still needs cleaning up.

The EPA needs to be allowed to do its job to clean up our air and protect our public health, and the proposed rules currently underway are a critical step in this fight.

Take action for clean air now!

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Jorge Madrid

Research Associate & Policy Analyst