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In July, much of Wisconsin was roasting in the hottest temperatures we’ve seen all year. For some, the heat is a mere inconvenience, solved by heading to the pool or staying indoors. For many with respiratory issues, however, the soaring temperatures can pose a serious health risk.

You can’t see it, but on hot summer days our air can be filled with hazardous levels of ground-level ozone pollution, especially in southeastern Wisconsin.

Ground-level ozone is the main ingredient in smog and is at its peak during the summer months when a mixture of hot sunny weather and pollutants from car exhaust, power plants and industrial factories react resulting in high levels of harmful ozone in the air we breathe.

Ozone causes or aggravates the same respiratory diseases as smoking, such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. Kids, the elderly and those with breathing difficulties are especially vulnerable to these health concerns.

Ozone pollution has been a persistent problem for Southeast Wisconsin and along Lake Michigan. Since the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources started tracking ozone advisories in 2007, over 83% of the ozone advisories in Wisconsin have occurred in the eight counties bordering Lake Michigan from the Door Peninsula to the Illinois border, including Racine County.

This year, the American Lung Association gave those eight counties an “F” rating for high ozone pollution levels, based on air quality monitoring between 2015 and 2017.

Our health is directly linked to the air — and pollution — we are breathing. If our air is not clean, the health of our kids and communities suffer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that asthma costs the U.S. over $56 billion annually, including from medical bills and lost work and school days.

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The opposite is true, too. When our air is cleaned up, our communities prosper. Small changes can show big effects. In fact, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency increased protections from ozone pollution, they estimated that the changes would prevent around 390,000 asthma attacks in U.S. children annually. Health benefits would lead to savings of as much as $8 billion per year.

Yet, when it came time to apply those protections to Wisconsin communities, EPA exempted large areas along Lake Michigan where those protections matter most. These exemptions would allow new polluters to add high levels of ozone-causing pollutants to our air.

In short, the EPA is failing to protect the health of Wisconsin residents, children and communities from ozone pollution. Last summer, Clean Wisconsin filed a lawsuit against the EPA to make the agency uphold its responsibility to protect Wisconsinites from ozone pollution. The case is currently in federal court.

Our kids should be free to play outside without the risk of polluted air causing irreparable harm to their health. The elderly should be free from the effects of ozone limiting their ability to be outside and active in their community. Those with asthma should be free from concerns about an asthma attack that could send to the emergency room — or worse — because the air isn’t clean.

In short, everyone in Wisconsin deserves to breathe clean air. Clean Wisconsin is committed to making that a reality.

Before you head outside this summer, check real-time air quality information for your area at AirNow.gov.

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Mark Redsten is President & CEO of Clean Wisconsin. Claire Gervais, MD, is a family practice physician and is a Clinical Associate Professor with the University of Wisconsin Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.

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