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Henry G. Spratt

Tennesseans will be able to breathe easier thanks to new, stronger smog protections by President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to be finalized in early October. The new smog safeguard will help significantly curb pollution from coal-fired power plants that is hurting our health, environment and economy.

Smog pollution is directly linked to chronic asthma and other respiratory and lung diseases, so it is critical for the president and EPA to address the issue. The current smog pollution (also called ozone) standard — the federal benchmark for clean air — is 75 parts per billion. When the Bush Administration last updated that standard in 2008, it failed to take the necessary action to safeguard the health of Americans nationwide. Scientists and medical health professionals, whose data and analysis suggested 60 ppb as the lowest possible standard without endangering the health and lives of Americans, affirmed a standard of 75 ppb was insufficient to protect public health and urged officials to set it no higher than 60 ppb.

The president is poised to correct the negligent 2008 standard and protect millions of Americans from dirty air and unnecessary and costly illness. The EPA has proposed lowering the standard to somewhere in the range of 65 ppb to 70 ppb, not the desired 60 ppb but significantly better than the existing standard.

Children are at the greatest risk from air pollution because they are more likely to be active outdoors and their lungs are still developing. Asthma strikes nearly 10 percent of children nationwide, and closer to 13 percent of Chattanooga's children — causing thousands of them to miss school each year. Last year, more than 14,000 children in Tennessee received emergency treatment at school for asthma. Time away from the classroom because of pollution-related illnesses robs students of the ability to adequately prepare for adulthood. It also causes their parents to miss work to care for them and results in higher medical bills.

The situation is especially dire for low-income families and children of color, since their families are more likely to have limited access to treatment and to live near power plants and in counties with worse smog pollution. Nationwide, one in six African-American children and one in nine Latino children suffers from asthma, which leads to unnecessarily tragic consequences: African-American children in Tennessee are twice as likely to suffer from asthma as white children, and four times as likely to die from asthma.

It will be great to finally see children prioritized over big polluters. American voters have indicated that they want the EPA to enact policies that will help protect the health of their children and grandchildren, clean up our air, and also curb climate change. Yet for years, politicians have been defending the profits of these polluters at the expense of the well-being of our communities. Operating without oversight, coal-fired power plants were allowed to contaminate our air with impunity while halting environmental and economic progress in their continued support of dirty coal over clean energy.

Thanks in part to support for a new, stronger smog standard from Mayor Andy Berke and other mayors across the country, President Obama and the EPA can finalize a robust smog reduction plan next month that will help reduce the harm inflicted upon millions of Americans and our children by dirty air and unnecessary illness. Given the dangerous consequences, it's common sense that we should implement safeguards to clean up the air we all breathe.

Henry G. Spratt Jr. is a professor in the department of biology, geology, and environmental science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Contact him at henry-spratt@utc.edu or 423-425-4383.

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