The Lingering Fog of Smog

Most Vulnerable Communities in D.C. Affected

A day of smog in D.C. (Courtesy photo)
A day of smog in D.C. (Courtesy photo)

It’s no coincidence that D.C., which has one of the highest asthma rates in the country, also tops the chart for air pollution and smog.

D.C.’s smog levels, second only to California, pose a huge public health hazard to all Washingtonians, but especially those suffering from lung-related chronic illnesses.

While air quality has improved overall in the past decade, D.C., Arlington County and Prince George’s County still earned an “F” grade in the American Lung Association’s 2017 State of the Air report.

More noxious than a blend of smoke and fog as the name implies, smog is formed after pollutants such as coal emissions, vehicular exhaust and agricultural fires react in sunlight to form toxic, secondary gases like ozone. Dust, sand and pollen particulates combine with this gas mixture and clog the air on hot and traffic-heavy days.

Exposure can lead to several types of short- and long-term health problems for both healthy and vulnerable populations.

High levels of ozone can irritate even non-vulnerable people’s respiratory systems and cause coughing and throat or chest irritation, which can last for several hours.

For vulnerable populations, the risk of developing illness is higher. Sensitive groups like children, seniors and people with lung illnesses are particularly susceptible to toxic effects of smog.

And it’s proven that early-life pollution exposure leads to the development of asthma.

In light of these blaring health hazards, environment and public health watchdog organizations filed a lawsuit against EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt for violating the U.S. Clean Air Act, citing his failure to determine whether D.C. and Philadelphia meet national clean air standards to control smog.

Public health officials set standards in the Clean Air Act to lower the levels of manmade pollutants which exacerbate lung issues such as asthma, allergies and chronic bronchitis.

Foreboding statistics indicate that higher levels of smog and air pollution contribute to increased diagnoses of asthma, allergy, emphysema and bronchitis every year and increased flare-ups of these illnesses.

According to a D.C. community health assessment, 22.4 percent of children under 18 currently live with lifetime asthma in the District, almost twice the national average of 12.4 percent.

But air pollution generally correlates with higher rates all types of health detriments. The connection between increasing pollution and low birth weight babies exists even below the current accepted “safe” levels of pollution. Additionally, magnetic particles from air pollution are linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

In many instances, air pollution and smog are environmental injustices, as the most high-asthma-risk populations live in low-income or minority communities.

Failing to rate a city’s progress on air pollution and smog reduction leaves public health at risk. Without oversight or regulations, industries that produce the most pollution face no enforcement or standards to abide by.

Once such standard, the Air Quality Index (AQI) ranks air quality from zero to 300. Levels above 150 are considered unhealthy for anyone, and levels above 200 are considered very unhealthy.

A level 100 smog day is forecast as early as this week, Wednesday, May 17. Children and adults with respiratory and heart ailments should limit time spent outside.

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