Healthcare advocate Heather Grzelka has a personal story when it comes to dirty air in the Washington, D.C. area. She, along with dozens of others, gave testimony in a 9-hour public hearing hosted by the EPA, seeking public comment for proposed revisions to national air quality standards for Nitrogen Oxide, also known as NO2.
For most of the past two years, 11-year-old Katherine Grzelka has coughed. "I have had inhalers, allergy medicine, huge pills I have had to swallow and all kinds of stuff," Katherine explains, "That's annoying."
Katharine's mother Heather says her daughter was perfectly healthy before they moved to suburban Washington from a small town in Texas in 2007. But she says that over the past two years, they have made countless trips to doctors' offices and medical specialists --all to find the cause of Katherine's cough.
"Her diagnosis changes from asthma to severe allergies to having a habit cough," Katerine's mother Heather said.
So Heather has given up on medical diagnoses for the moment. She is blaming Katherine's cough on what she sees as heavy air pollution in her area.
"Our home is sandwiched between two very busy highways," Heather says, "and so is her school so she never gets a break from breathing this heavy pollution."
Heather Grzelka works for the American Lung Association and for years has been a healthcare advocate. Now she finds herself in the unfamiliar role of victim. Not only does she watch -- and hear -- her daughter cough endlessly, but she herself suffers from an array of respiratory ailments made worse, she feels, by dirty air.
On Monday, she testified before officials of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, joining others who say they suffer from poor air quality. The EPA had invited public comment on its proposed strengthening of nitrogen dioxide or NO2 standards. NO2 is formed by emissions from cars, trucks and power plants. It contributes to the formation of ozone, and is thought to aggravate respiratory problems, especially asthma.
"We have found since our last review in 1996 that there are new epidemiological studies that are raising health issues especially in children, in the elderly, asthmatics and sensitive sub-populations so we have strong scientific evidence that requires us to take action," Rosalina Rodriguez of the EPA said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 23 million Americans suffer from asthma, exacting a huge economic cost.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to review national air quality standards. The proposal on the table would set, for the first time, a one-hour NO2 standard, at much more stringent levels. This would limit short-term exposure to NO2.
But Howard Feldman of the American Petroleum Institute, a lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, says the EPA's new proposal is not needed and that the agency's own data shows sharp decreases in NO2 concentrations. He says his industry has already cleaned up its act.
"There's cleaner diesel fuel in cleaner trucks coming in and clean up efforts that have been made at stationary sources and at power plants and this clean-up will continue for decades to come," Feldman said.
Another public hearing is set for next week in Los Angeles, where air pollution is a major issue. California has one of the most stringent NO2 standards in the nation, and many who testified Monday urged the EPA to follow that state's lead. Health experts there have published studies suggesting longterm NO2 exposure harms lung growth and function in children.
"And today's hearing is critical in giving a voice to me and my family as well as to other public health officials, and members of the public who care about their kids and want to see the air quality in this area and this nation improve," Heather adds.
EPA officials say they will register citizens' comments over the next 60 days, and order a final ruling in January 2010.