In a bid to protect public health and reduce the smog pollution that's been linked to respiratory problems, asthma attacks, and cardiovascular damage, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday unveiled new air quality standards for ozone—though some suggested they might not go far enough.
Ground-level ozone forms when emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds "cook" in the sun from sources like vehicles, factories, power plants, and certain fumes from fuels, solvents and paints. People most at risk from breathing air containing ozone include people with asthma, children, older adults, and those who are active or work outside.
The EPA's proposal would strengthen air quality standards to within a range of 65 to 70 parts per billion (ppb); the EPA said it will take comment on a level as low as 60 ppb. The agency last updated these standards in 2008, setting them at 75 ppb. The Guardian notes that "[e]ven at the time of their adoption in 2008, federal government scientists said the standards were too lax to protect the most vulnerable populations."
"Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air, improve access to crucial air quality information, and protect those most at-risk, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement. "Fulfilling the promise of the Clean Air Act has always been EPA’s responsibility. Our health protections have endured because they’re engineered to evolve, so that’s why we’re using the latest science to update air quality standards—to fulfill the law’s promise, and defend each and every person’s right to clean air."
According to an agency analysis, strengthening the standard to a range of 65 to 70 ppb "will provide significantly better protection for children, preventing from 320,000 to 960,000 asthma attacks and from 330,000 to 1 million missed school days." EPA also claims the updated standard would prevent up to 4,300 premature deaths, up to 4,300 asthma-related emergency room visits, and up to 180,000 missed work days.
The initial reaction from public health and environmental groups was positive, although some wished the proposal was more aggressive.
"The EPA’s proposal to strengthen the standard is a step forward in the fight to protect all Americans from the dangers of breathing ozone pollution, especially to protect our children, our older adults and those living with lung or heart disease," said Harold P. Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association. "To that end, we will focus on ensuring that the final ozone standard provides the most protection possible to the American people, especially the most vulnerable."
Wimmer added: "We are concerned that EPA did not include 60 ppb in the range, though it was the clear recommendation of independent scientists as well as health and medical societies, including the American Lung Association. The scientific record clearly shows that a standard of 60 ppb would provide the most public health protection."
Anticipating pushback from Republicans and the business community, the Sierra Club also urged the EPA to stand by its commitments.
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"We applaud the EPA proposal to lower the existing standard, and strongly encourage the agency to limit this pollution to 60 ppb when they finalize the exact standard in October of 2015," said Mary Anne Hitt, Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign director. "The EPA has raised the mantle of putting people before polluters and holding negligent companies accountable for what they expose our communities to. Choosing to lower the standard from 75 ppb is a tremendous step toward putting the health of children above polluters, and we hope the EPA takes another one and places the final standard at 60 ppb come October of 2015."
The proposal was met with industry criticism. CBS News reports that "[b]usiness groups, which had called for no changes in the standards, said the proposal would cost $270 billion a year, place millions of jobs at risk and put much of the country out of compliance."
In a statement, National Association of Manufacturers CEO Jay Timmons said the new regulation "threatens to be the most expensive ever imposed on industry in America and could jeopardize recent progress in manufacturing by placing massive new costs on manufacturers and closing off counties and states to new business by blocking projects at the permitting stage."
Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, echoed those concerns, saying the current standards are adequate and new rules are "not necessary to improve air quality."
"Careful review of the science shows that the current standards already protect public health," he said. "Tightening these standards could be the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public, with potentially enormous costs to the economy, jobs, and consumers."
But Frank O'Donnell of the Washington, D.C.-based Clean Air Watch, scoffed at such claims.
"I would urge you to read not only EPA’s proposal but the summary of projected economic impacts," he wrote. "It gives a lie to the flatulent industry claims that this would be the most expensive rule ever. In addition to already adopted rules in the works (such as low-sulfur gasoline and the Tier 3 car standards) there are other options that can make cost-effective progress towards a tougher standard—for example, tougher standards for new big-rig trucks. We do not need to choose between public health protection and a sound economy."
The administration's announcement on ozone comes one day after the U.S. Supreme Court said it would review the nation’s first-ever standards requiring power plants to reduce mercury emissions and other toxic air pollutants, a move described by the Wall Street Journal as one with "implications for President Barack Obama's broader environmental agenda."