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'Our Kids Deserve Better': Despite Pandemic, Trump EPA Refuses to Strengthen Smog Standards

"In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans are more keenly aware than ever of the need to take care of our health."

Highrise buildings in downtown Los Angeles, California are seen on on a hazy morning on September 21, 2018. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

President Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday finalized a rule maintaining current standards for ozone pollution, in a decision public health and environmental advocates said blatantly flouted the advice of scientists. 

Despite evidence that ground-level ozone—the main component of smog—contributes to and can worsen health conditions like asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the agency will maintain standards set by President Barack Obama, allowing 70 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone in the ground level atmosphere. 

"People deserve to breathe clean air. We will fight this feeble, anti-science approach to dangerous air pollution with all tools available. And we'll urge the Biden team to deliver cleaner, healthier air for all."
—Vijay Limaye, NRDC

Advocates have long called for the standard to be tightened to 60 ppb. An EPA analysis conducted during the Obama administration showed that a stricter standard could prevent nearly 4,000 premature deaths linked to long-term exposure to air pollution; the 70 ppb standard would prevent only 680 deaths. 

Another study by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published in 2017, showed "significant evidence of adverse effects" of exposure to ozone "at concentrations below current national standards," among older Americans and particularly among racial minorities and people with low incomes. 

Wheeler's decision comes after the EPA disbanded a panel of scientific experts which would otherwise have recommended pollution limits. 

"The EPA, which is in charge of protecting our environment and human health, has taken the unconscionable step of ignoring its own scientists and finalizing a rule that allows polluters to keep emitting unacceptable levels of smog into our air," said Morgan Folger, director of Environment America's Destination: Zero Carbon Campaign. "In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans are more keenly aware than ever of the need to take care of our health. Our lungs especially are highly susceptible to the exponential danger of the coronavirus and pollution."

The EPA's announcement also comes weeks after the agency declined to strengthen standards for particulate matter pollution, commonly known as soot, and a week after a London coroner, for the first time ever, listed air pollution as a cause of death on the death certificate of a nine-year-old girl who died in 2013.  

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Moms Clean Air Force slammed the agency for finalizing standards that "blatantly expose children, older adults, and other vulnerable groups to unacceptable health risks."

"Administrator Wheeler's refusal to strengthen national standards for smog will lead to more kids having asthma attacks that could have been prevented, more missed school days, more lung infections, worsening of dangerous chronic conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and more children whose lung development is impaired," said Molly Rauch, the public health policy director for the group.

"With today's finalization of the ozone rule, Administrator Wheeler has continued a longstanding habit of flouting science and public health to protect dirty industries from having to clean up their pollution," she added. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said Trump's EPA blatantly declined an opportunity to "protect the 122 million people living today in areas that exceed the current unhealthy standard."

"People deserve to breathe clean air," said Vijay Limaye, a climate and health scientist at the NRDC. "We will fight this feeble, anti-science approach to dangerous air pollution with all tools available. And we'll urge the Biden team to deliver cleaner, healthier air for all."

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