June 2015: Don’t Shoot the Messenger (New Ozone Standard and Asthma)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) has proposed to lower the current ozone standard from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to somewhere between 65 and 70 ppb. The main reason for the lower standard that U.S. EPA puts forward is to lower the rate of asthma in the nation. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) has presented information that shows over the last 10 to 15 years, ozone levels both in Indiana and the nation have decreased while asthma rates have increased. Given this scenario, would one expect a further lowering of the ozone standard to lead to a reduction in asthma rates? Absolutely not. The data do not support this conclusion. A local newspaper reporter has called out IDEM for taking this position.

What is wrong with this story? The focus should be on the data. Do they stand up to review, do they support the U.S. EPA conclusion? It is not about IDEM. If a reduction in the ozone standard will not lead to lower asthma rates, then U.S. EPA should provide another reason for why these cuts are necessary.

We are not downplaying asthma or its consequences. If you or a relative have asthma you know first-hand the issues related to lack of breath and coughing. If it gets bad enough and your inhaler does not give the necessary relief, people end up at the emergency room. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2010, 1.8 million people visited an emergency department for asthma related care and 439,000 people were hospitalized because of asthma.

However, if we truly want to reduce the incidence of asthma we must look at the events that trigger asthma in the first place. Among these are cigarette smoking, pet dander, pollen and food allergies.

The following charts show Indiana asthma rates for adults and children versus the population weighted ozone levels for the state. The asthma rates can be found on the CDC website. The ozone data can be found on the U.S. EPA AIRDATA website.

Instead of shooting the messengers, we need to look at the causes of asthma and work to reduce those things that trigger asthma. Reducing asthma rates in Indiana and nationwide is a worthy goal that should be accomplished responsibly. So far, lowering the ozone standard has not led to reduced asthma rates. Perhaps we need to try another approach.