A fiscal Code Blue for 'Code Red' pollution alerts

Think the budget battles in Washington, D.C., are just a lot of hot air? Well, say so long to next-day air pollution forecasts, hanging out on the chopping block amid federal funding fights.

Dan Vergano, USA TODAY, January 26, 2013

                                                  The George Washington Bridge is barely visible
through heavy smog in New Jersey and New York. (Photo: EPA)

Smog NY and NJ at GWBEven as the U.S. Embassy warns about Beijing's smog, federal weather officials here are proposing to cut the nation's two-day ozone and smog forecasts, ones behind local warnings to the sick and elderly about "Code Red" days for air pollution.

The proposal to shelve the $5.4 million "National Air Quality Forecast Capability" forecasts in March has drawn protests from public health officials in 22 states, the cities of Philadelphia, Jacksonville and Denver, as well as Midwestern officials of the Environmental Protection Agency. Public health officials from coast to coast rely on the National Weather Service forecasts to warn asthma and respiratory illness patients about poor air quality and to meet Clean Air Act responsibilities to reduce smog.

"This termination is proposed due to the current fiscal environment," said NWS acting Director Laura Furgione in a statement last October when the cuts were proposed. The proposal was made after the White House last year knocked the program's budget down to $1.7 million, and with the Obama administration now proposing cuts down to $865,000 in this year's budget. A House proposal for 2013 would fund the program at $4 million, still less than what it costs to run, while a Senate one would match the president's $865,000 offer.

"Oh my gosh! I use these predictions to breathe!" said one patient with breathing problems in the anonymous comments submitted to the agency. Ground-level ozone, created from the combination of smokestack and tailpipe emissions, inflames airways in asthmatics and damages the lining of the lungs. Fine particle smog, the other pollutant predicted by the forecasts, causes haze and is linked to lung cancer and heart disease. Poor air-quality kills about 50,000 people prematurely every year nationwide and adds about $150 billion in health care costs, according to NOAA.

"The benefits are so pronounced against the cost savings that this makes little sense," says Penn State meteorologist Gregory Garner, who has found states and locales benefit from averted emergency room visits due to the widely used forecasts. Basically, under the proposal, health officials would still know from air monitors when the current days were smoggy ones, but would be unable to warn patients and industries of likely next-day conditions for ozone and "fine-particulate" smog. Counties would not know whether they should initiate free bus services on "Code Red" days, or tell people days not to burn trash. "This is really going to have a high impact," Garner says.

Full story here:
Code Blue for 'Code Red'