EPA Releases Long-Awaited New Rules Limiting Ozone

“For our children, that means avoiding up to 1 million missed school days, thousands of cases of acute bronchitis, and nearly a million asthma attacks," the EPA's Gina McCarthy says of the proposed rule. Yves Herman / Reuters

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday its proposal for a long-delayed regulation to curb ozone pollution, a human health hazard linked to asthma, heart disease, premature death, and an array of pregnancy complications.

The new measure would target ground-level ozone pollution, commonly known as smog, emitted primarily from power plants and factories. It would lower the acceptable threshold for ambient smog from 75 parts per billion to somewhere in the range of 65-70 parts per billion, while opening a comment period on a standard as low as 60 parts per billion. States will be given time to design a way to meet the new standard, and will then have until "2020 to 2037" to meet it depending on the severity of the ozone problem in that state, according to EPA Chief Gina McCarthy.

The existing ozone standard was set by the George W. Bush administration in 2008, and limited ground-level ozone to 75 parts per billion, despite urging from EPA's science advisers to keep it between 60 and 70 parts per billion. In Obama first term, the EPA had planned to release its new ozone rule in 2011, but faced with the threat of strong industry backlash, the administration pushed it off, fearing it would hurt his re-election chances in 2012, according to The New York Times.

In 2013, nearly four in 10 people in the U.S., or roughly 38 percent, lived in areas with harmful levels of ozone, according to the American Lung Association's State of the Air report. Asthma affects 25 million Americans and kills more than 3,000 of them a year. Ozone can make existing asthma worse and triggers asthma attacks, according to research compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

L.A., currently ranked the most ozone-polluted city in the U.S. by the American Lung Association, is infamous for visible smog cover. Several studies have linked L.A.'s air pollution to an increase in adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as early birth and low birth weight.

"We know that pregnant women who breathe more air pollution have much higher rates of virtually every adverse pregnancy outcome that exists," says Brian Moench, the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. Utah's Uintah Basin, which has a high density of oil and gas wells, has unusually high rates of ozone.

"Missing work, feeling ill, or caring for a sick child costs us time, money, and personal hardship. When family health issues hurt us financially, that drags down the whole economy," McCarthy wrote in a statement released Wednesday. "The good news is that if these proposed standards were finalized, every dollar we would invest to meet them would return up to $3 in health benefits (totaling up to $38 billion in 2025, and going up from there)."

"For our children, that means avoiding up to 1 million missed school days, thousands of cases of acute bronchitis, and nearly a million asthma attacks. Adults could avoid hundreds of emergency room visits for cardiovascular reasons, up to 180,000 missed work days, and 4 million days where people have to deal with pollution-related symptoms."

Industry groups say the new rule would cripple the economy by requiring factories to install expensive new air-scrubbing equipment.

"This would be the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public," the National Association of Manufacturers said in a July study calculating that such a rule would kill $3.4 trillion worth of economic output and 2.9 million jobs by 2040.

But, under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to "protect and enhance the quality of the Nation's air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population." Proponents of the proposed rule argue that ozone pollution is a clear threat the public health and welfare, and as such, must be implemented.

"Ozone is not only killing people, but causing tens of millions of people to get sick every day," William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, told The New York Times.