When most people learn about new federal environment regulations, the benefits are often discussed as strategic, long-term goals. A recent regulation announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) caught my eye because it communicated relatable, short-term public health benefits of reducing ground ozone levels. Is this angle a more effective way to bring attention to or gain buy-in on environmental regulations?
My colleague Sarah Lichtner wrote about the challenges that regulators, policymakers, and researchers face when communicating concerns about climate change to the public. Many of the EPA’s policies aim to lessen the detrimental impacts of human activity on the environment. In recent years, this has made climate change the primary focal point—but with a shift toward the long-term effects of climate change, it can be harder for the public to feel a sense of urgency to make sustainable environmental decisions.
The revised National Ambient Air Quality standards, announced on October 1, cite growing evidence that increased ground ozone levels negatively affect public health. The new standards reduce the allowed limit of ground ozone (O3) levels from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 70 ppb. While ozone is a good thing in the upper levels of earth’s atmosphere—protecting us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays—at the ground level, it is a pollutant that contributes to various health issues. The EPA came to the conclusion, through the review of over 2,300 scientific studies, that a reduction between 60 and 70 ppb is needed to protect the public from significant risks to human health, including respiratory inflammation, difficulty breathing, and premature deaths.
Since 1980, Americans have successfully reduced the overall level of tropospheric ozone by 30 percent through new technologies, reduced emissions, and increased public awareness of the harmful effects of pollution. Despite these improvements, the air quality in several parts of the United States still poses health risks. Short-term effects of air pollution include more sick days, hospital visits, and increased medical costs. People with compromised respiratory systems (such as seniors and children) or conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma are at increased risk of experiencing medical complications and emergencies from going outside when the air quality is poor. With a ground ozone range between 65 and 70 ppb, the EPA estimates the annual benefits to include the avoidance of up to 960,000 children’s asthma attacks, nearly 1 million children’s sick days, and up to 4,300 premature deaths related to ozone.
While the new regulation will not create an overnight reduction in ground ozone levels, the potential health benefits are far more relatable to the public, especially to those living in regions with high levels of air pollution. As the EPA continues to take action to reduce impacts of climate change and pollution, communicating near-term tangible benefits to the public seems like a good way to build support and drive action.