March 13, 2008

New Smog Standards Half Protect Public Health

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced stronger limits on ozone pollution in the United States yesterday, but kicked off a firestorm of controversy because it ignored the recommendations of its own scientists.

Ozone is formed when pollutants from tailpipes, smokestacks, and oil and gas drilling react with sunlight. It's a corrosive gas that can trigger asthma attacks, send people to the hospital, and cause premature death, even at low concentrations. Children, seniors, those with asthma and other respiratory conditions, and even active adults are most at risk. It's considered to be the key ingredient of smog.

Nationally, the Clean Air Act limits ozone concentrations to safeguard public health. Yesterday, the EPA announced it would set those limits at 75 parts per billion, a drop from 80 parts per billion. While the move is good for public health, sadly the new standard will leave many of us still gasping for clean air.

That's because the EPA's own clean air scientists called for the standard to be set to no more than 70 parts per billion. In a letter last March, the scientists emphatically stated, "the level of the current primary ozone standard should be no greater than [70 parts per billion]."

That's not all. The EPA's own Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee called on the EPA to drop the standard to 60 parts per billion. And a flurry of public health groups, including the American Lung Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action also called for the standard to be dropped below 70 parts per billion.

It's yet another case of the EPA playing politics with public health.

Not surprisingly, the agency is under intense fire. Representative Diana DeGette, vice-chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chided the EPA's failure to protect public health, as well as Senator Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

In the meantime, the new standards promise some changes in the Rocky Mountain region. With lower ozone limits, the bar has been raised, and that's good news for clean air and public health. While groups like Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action are going to continue to fight for ozone standards that fully protect public health, the new limits give will at least get us half the way there.

Smog-filled Denver Skyline.

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