Texas Clean Air Matters

Selected tag(s): Houston

Amid COVID-19, the Trump administration sets dangerous air pollution standards. What is at stake for Houstonians?

Ananya Roy, Senior Health Scientist; Rachel Fullmer, Senior Attorney; Jeremy Proville, Director; Grace Tee Lewis, Health Scientist

Fine particle pollution affects the health of nearly all Houstonians.

The Trump administration’s disregard for science has been clear in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s not the only health threat they’re making worse by ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence. For three years the administration has systematically sought to weaken clean air safeguards, endangering all Americans.

We know air pollution causes heart disease, diabetes and lung disease — and that the people suffering from these conditions are at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Independent of the ongoing pandemic, air pollution is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths across America year after year. This underscores the vital importance of pollution protections to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

Unfortunately, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has proposed to retain an outdated and inadequate standard for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution despite strong scientific evidence that it must be strengthened to adequately protect human health.

To understand what having this pollution standard means for families living in the Greater Houston area, Harvard University and EDF scientists undertook an analysis of the impacts of PM2.5 exposure across the city. We found that:

  • Exposure to fine particle air pollution in 2015 was responsible for 5,213 premature deaths and over $49 billion in associated economic damages.
  • More than 75% of the health burden was borne by communities exposed to PM5 levels below the current standard.
  • Meeting the current standard alone would have prevented 91 deaths of the more than 5,000 premature deaths due to fine particle pollution.

By ignoring the scientific evidence and retaining the current standard, Administrator Wheeler is ignoring the very real health impacts felt by Houstonians and communities across the country from exposure to fine particle pollution.

Who bears the burden of fine particle air pollution in Houston?

Most Houstonians may not think about the fine particle pollution produced by more than 5 million registered cars and trucks and 121,000 industrial facilities in the region. While pollution directly impacts East Houston fence line communities, it also transforms in the atmosphere and blows west across to unexpected places downwind of the sources. It may not be visible, but fine particle pollution affects the health of nearly all Houstonians.

This analysis indicates that almost all of the city is exposed to fine particulate matter above 10 micrograms per meter cubed [µg/m3] (most scientists say that the new EPA standard should be between 8-10 µg/m3), and large portions in the west and southwest of the city are even above the current standard (12 µg/m3). This includes communities along the Energy Corridor, River Oaks, Bellaire, and West University and parts of Memorial where household incomes in the city are among the highest in the region. Importantly, the areas with the highest particulate pollution levels currently do not have regulatory monitors.

Exposure to high levels of particulate pollution is widespread.

This particle pollutant map was generated using state of the art fine scale model predictions at a 1 km2 scale that incorporates satellite data, weather and meteorology, land-use, elevation, chemical transport model predictions and regulatory monitor data where available.

Click here to access an interactive map to explore where PM2.5 levels are high and which communities are affected.

Particulate matter air pollution impacts both high income and low income communities in Houston. It has taken a great toll on communities of color and low wealth in Houston (including Gulfton, Sharpstown, Westwood, and Gulfgate neighborhoods). Sharpstown – a predominantly Asian and Hispanic working class community, where more than 40% of the families make less than $25,000 a year – is estimated to have had more than 80 deaths due to PM2.5 in 2015 in just 9 square miles. Many middle class neighborhoods (such as Briar Forest, Eldridge, West Oaks and communities in West and Southwest Houston) have also experienced high numbers of deaths due to pollution.

The health burden is particularly large in certain high-density areas with elevated pollution, in which the number of deaths due to PM2.5 is five to ten times higher than the average across the city.

Fine particle pollution results in more than 5,000 premature deaths.

To estimate the impact of PM2.5 on premature deaths we combined the pollution concentration data with population at a resolution of 1 km2 (GPWv4), baseline mortality at the county scale from CDC WONDER databases, and a concentration response function derived from a meta-analysis of over 50 epidemiological studies of PM2.5 on all-cause mortality conducted across a wide range of exposures, including 17 studies where the mean exposure was below the current standard.

Click here to access an interactive map of the health impacts of PM2.5 exposure and here for a breakdown of impacts by Houston city super neighborhoods.

Overall, particle pollution across the Greater Houston area resulted in a staggering $49 billion in the cost to life across the area. The new analysis highlights the urgent need to strengthen the federal standard for PM2.5 – to better protect Houstonians and communities across the country.

EPA is ignoring the scientific evidence – at the expense of our health

EPA is proposing to keep an outdated, inadequate standard despite overwhelming scientific evidence that stronger safeguards are needed. The EPA administrator is required by law to use the best available science to set a standard that is protective of public health.

There is robust and consistent scientific evidence that air pollution causes serious health impacts at levels at which Houstonians are being exposed – even below the EPA standard. For example:

  • A study of 61 million Medicare beneficiaries in America found higher particle pollution was associated with higher mortality even when restricted to Americans never exposed to levels above 12 µg /m3.
  • A Canadian study of over 2 million people, where the average exposure was 7 µg /m3 and nearly everyone was exposed to levels below 12 µg /m3, found that air pollution even at these levels was associated with premature death.

“We have studies of millions of people over decades whose exposure never exceeded the current standard, and find strong evidence not only that those exposures increase mortality rates but that the increased risk of death per 1 µg/m3 is actually larger at the lower exposures,” said Joel Schwartz, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology at Harvard University and senior author of the analysis. “Moreover, these include studies using causal modeling methods (that EPA’s advisors have called for) which find the same effects as the other studies,” Schwartz continued.

Administrator Wheeler, borrowing language from industry-linked EPA advisors, has cast doubt on the health evidence to suggest that the effects seen in these studies are due to factors such as socioeconomic status or exposure misclassification. “This notion is simply false,” said Dr. Alina Vodonos Zilberg, data scientist at K Health, previously post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University and collaborator on this analysis. “The meta-analysis of over 50 studies (that these results are based on) reveals that the link between air pollution and mortality only becomes stronger when socioeconomic factors are taken into account and better exposure assessment methods are used.”

The latest claim is that the studies of health effects only show associations and do not show cause and effect, since the studies do not use causal methods. This – again – is not true, as there are an increasing number of studies that use causal methods that reaffirm the risks of air pollution, including several large studies among populations in the Eastern United States (Zigler et al 2018, Wang et al 2017, Schwartz et al 2017, Schwartz et al 2018, Abu Awad et al 2019).

There are no more excuses. When leaders set and enforce smart policies, it saves lives and protects our well-being. Now is the time to get this right.

Take action now to demand EPA strengthen the federal standard.

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Houston teens take their fight for clean air to Washington, D.C.

Houston-area students from EDF’s Environmental Youth Council visited Washington, D.C., to learn about the ways that the policies that affect them and their families are negotiated.

A trip from Houston to Washington, D.C., was the exclamation point at the end of the first year of EDF’s Environmental Youth Council program.

Through the program, students attending Pasadena Memorial High School, Galena Park High School and Raul Yzaguirre School for Success — all located on the east side of Houston near the heavy industry located up and down the busy Houston Ship Channel — have committed to learning about environmental health, air quality and public policy and advocacy.

EDF was excited to take this first cohort of students to the nation’s capital to explore the city, learn more about organizations working on environmental issues and gain a better understanding of how legislative representatives create the policies that impact their lives.

Read More »

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Part III: Flawed Logic at Texas Environmental Agency Results in Costly Lawsuits and Poor Public Health Policy

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There is robust agreement on the dangers of ozone pollution in the medical health community.

Part I of our series on ozone described how 2015 was a bad year for Houston ozone. Part II reviewed recent research from leading Houston scientists that explains why more ozone pollution is harmful to our health. Part III explains how faulty logic and erroneous assumptions had led to costly lawsuits and poor public health policy across the state. Part IV will identify some solutions to Houston’s ozone problem and suggest measures to protect the health of Houston area residents.

There has been quite a bit of activity related to the proposed U.S. ozone regulations in the past year. As part of a four part series on ozone in 2015, we’d like to take the time to rebuke some of the scientifically-flawed testimony provided by state environmental officials, including Dr. Michael Honeycutt, toxicologist for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state environmental agency. We feel that the agency has presented health information in a way that is misleading and contradicts the robust opinion of the medical health community on the issue.

First, a little context is important. We at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have participated in the public process involving the ozone standard and provided testimony to Congress on the health effects of ozone exposure. TCEQ has challenged the health-based standards in an aggressive way, and their efforts have been fodder for expensive and frivolous lawsuits filed by the state. Read More »

Posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Justice, Environmental Protection Agency, Houston, Ozone, TCEQ, Uncategorized / Also tagged , | Read 2 Responses

Part I: Why Are Houston’s 2015 Ozone Levels Cause for Concern?

This is Part I of our four-part series on Houston ozone and how it affects your health.

ozone image 2 1.20.16

Ozone pollution affects everyone, no matter where they live.

Though the region has made progress on air quality in recent years, Houston suffered a setback in 2015 with a significant spike in its ozone levels. Ozone, also known as smog, is harmful to health and can result in respiratory symptoms such as cough and chest tightness. And with considerable industrial and population growth expected in the next few years, experts are understandably worried about public health risks.

To protect public health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets national standards for ozone concentrations, or limits on the amount of harmful ozone pollution in the air. In 2008, EPA strengthened the standard to 75 parts per billion (ppb), and this year the agency set a more protective standard of 70ppb. A lower number means there is less smog – and less smog means cleaner, healthier air. (In order to evaluate the public’s exposure to ozone, scientists and health officials look at regional monitoring data to determine when ozone levels exceed those federal health-based standards. Read More »

Posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, Houston, Ozone / Also tagged | Read 1 Response

Chinese Reverse Trade Delegation Visits Houston

A couple of weeks ago, the China Green Ports Technology Reverse Trade Mission brought Chinese transportation officials to Houston to introduce them to U.S. technologies and the trade industry’s best practices to reduce ports’ environmental impact. Green port technologies are of particular interest in China, because seven of the ten largest ports in the world are located in China. The Chinese government and private sector are making efforts to modernize and strengthen China’s maritime management, while reducing its environmental footprint.

The purpose of the mission was to introduce the delegates to innovative technologies and service provider firms associated with green ports. As I spoke with the delegation, the conversation focused on many of the same efforts we are pursuing in the U.S. and right here in Texas, including:

  • Reducing the environmental impact of our nation’s seaports;
  • Improving the health of communities affected by port activities;
  • Increasing the efficiency and sustainability of ports;
  • Highlighting best management practices currently deployed at leading ports.

As we move forward with developing a port recognition system to highlight green port efforts across the nation, we know that our partners to the East are thinking likewise. We look forward to continued conversations such as these with new partners on novel technologies, continually improving port environmental impacts.

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Texas State Environmental Agency Expands Air Toxic Hotspot Area

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) recently issued a public comment period and public meeting regarding the Galena Park Air Pollutant Watch List (APWL) area for benzene. The purpose of the APWL is to reduce air toxic emissions in areas of Texas where ambient air monitoring indicates a potential health concern.

Galena Park is listed on the APWL due to elevated annual average concentrations of benzene.  Benzene is a known human carcinogen – both the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have found sufficient evidence that high benzene exposure causes acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

Why the change?

Between 1998 and 2007, annual average benzene concentrations in Galena Park exceeded the long-term, health-based Air Monitoring Comparison Values (AMCV) of 1.4 parts per billion by volume (ppbv). In 2009, annual average benzene concentration at the Pasadena North monitoring site equaled the long-term AMCV of 1.4 ppbv.

TCEQ recently conducted a reevaluation of Galena Park and identified significant man-made benzene sources located outside of the current APWL boundary that are likely contributing to annual average benzene concentrations at the Galena Park and Pasadena North monitoring sites. As such, TCEQ is proposing to expand the Galena Park APWL boundary to include these sources of benzene. Read More »

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