by Josie Huang
With scientists around the world calling the last decade the warmest in 50 years, there is new fear in some scientific circles that ozone levels will worsen with rising temperatures. Different ingredients go into creating the high ozone levels that make it difficult for some people to breathe: Take pollution from cars and factories, add strong sunlight and hot weather. Ozone is an issue for Mainers, who are on the receiving end of air pollution wafting over from other parts of the country, and who also have an above-average rate of asthma.
“Even a small increase in ozone due to a warmer climate would have a significant impact on public health,” says Liz Perera of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which released a peer-reviewed report today on the health effects of climate change-induced increases in ozone. “It would mean more asthma attacks, respiratory illnesses, emergency room trips and even premature deaths.”
For Maine, the group projects that climate change-induced ozone increases will lead to nearly 15,000 more cases of serious respiratory illness by 2020, at a cost of $36 million.
The Union of Concerned Scientists says Americans can try to strike down both ozone pollution and climate change by cutting fossil fuel emissions.
But some, including Gov. Paul LePage, question the extent to which humans are contributing to global warming. During his campaign last fall, LePage said it could be less than one percent. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection says it has not developed a position on climate change.
“A lot of the research really belongs in the university level because there are a lot of uncertainties out there,” says the DEP’s Chief Meterologist Tom Downs. He says there’s no questioning the science that if temperatures rise, ozone levels will too. But he says that’s assuming that emissions from cars and power plants increase. And because the Obama administration is proposing stricter smog standards, he doesn’t think they will.
“With the new ozone standard states that will have to address emissions and lower them to get them to attain the standard, so I do expect emissions to go down,” he says.
But others are more alarmed by the new report. Ed Miller of the American Lung Association in Maine says that global warming is happening and will have an impact on ozone levels. “People who have lived in Maine for a period of time know that there was a time when not too many people in Maine had air conditioners and they have them now.”>/p>
Miller says that ozone is a problem for the roughly 10 percent of Mainers who have asthma–compared to 7.8 percent nationally. Ozone, he says, also exacerbates the health of the elderly and people with chronic conditions.
He points out that pollutants are dangerous, but without the sunlight and higher temperatures, it isn’t converted into ozone. “It’s really the more warm, sunny days that you get, particularly the days in a row of hot and sunny days that’s going to determine how much ozone you produce,” Miller says. “And so climate change that increases the number of warm days in the summer then you’re going to get more ozone days and more health effects.”
In Maine, environmentalists see the report from the Union of Concerned Scientists as a call to use less fuel and conserve more energy. Groups such as the Natural Resources Council are promoting a state fund for energy efficiency projects in businesses. Environmentalists say that such projects not only save costs for Maine businesses now, but Mainers’s health over the long haul.
For more information on the report, click here