How Abbott Made the Outdoors Less Safe for Austin Families: A Texas PSR Op-Ed July 11, 2017

In response to Governor Abbott’s line-item veto of funding for ozone pollution monitors for Austin, San Antonio, and other pollution-threatened Texas cities, Texas PSR Board Treasurer, Dr. Elliot Trester, submitted an op-ed to the Austin-American Statesman. It was published on July 10, 2017. The full text of the op-ed is below.

As a family practice physician and board member of Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility, I understand all too well how much ground-level ozone affects my patients.

Ozone, a key component of smog pollution, can cause a burning sensation in the airways, shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. It can trigger asthma attacks and heart failure, among other health problems. Children are especially vulnerable because their lungs are still developing. They also tend to be more active outdoors on the hot, sunny days with the poorest air quality.

Given the serious health risks of ozone, I was deeply troubled by Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent line-item veto of $6 million in funding for clean air programs from the state budget. Lawmakers had set that money aside for Austin, San Antonio and other Texas cities that are in “near nonattainment areas” — or places on the verge of failing to meet federal limits for ozone.

At the time, the governor explained his decision by saying: “These resources should be prioritized to directly address problems in our nonattainment areas of the state, so that we are better positioned to combat the business-stifling regulations imposed on these areas by the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Let’s be honest. His veto was not intended to reduce smog levels in Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth — the two areas in Texas designated to be in violation of federal standards for ozone. His veto was intended to give the state and industry an excuse to claim that we don’t have an ozone problem in near nonattainment areas like Austin and San Antonio — because without funding, there will be fewer air quality monitors to warn us about unhealthy levels.

Even before the cuts, Travis County had received a failing grade for ozone from the American Lung Association, which based the mark on our area’s 14 days of unhealthy ozone levels in 2015. Our neighbor in Bexar County, San Antonio, also received a failing grade for its 36 unhealthy days.

These budget cuts have real impacts. San Antonio has already stopped collecting data on six monitors and plans to lay off four employees. “We are very disappointed and surprised by the governor’s veto of these critical funds,” Alamo Area Council of Governments Executive Director Diane Rath said.

Here in Austin, I advise my patients to get outdoors to hike and ride bikes. I also encourage their children to play outside. As many of my patients know, I peddle to work most days. People are healthier when they spend regular time outdoors in nature — and we are lucky to have so many parks, trails and swimming holes that make being outside in Central Texas inviting year-round.

Without adequate pollution monitoring, though, we will not know when the air is too dirty for our children to play outside. We will not know when to limit our own outdoor activity. We will not have enough information to find the best strategies to improve air quality, even as our population continues to grow.

When it comes to the air we breathe, ignorance is not bliss; it puts us all at risk.