EPA's Action on Ozone Pollution Frustrates Health Advocates

EPA Tightens Ozone Rule the Minimum Recommended Amount, Frustrating Health Advocates
Ozone, a precursor to smog, is associated with a range of health problems like heart disease, asthma, and early death. Yves Herman / Reuters

The Obama administration on Tuesday announced new air-quality standards for ozone pollution that, in contrast to aggressive new limits on emissions announced over the last year, represent a relatively small shift, a move that disappointed environmental groups.

The new rule will lower the allowable ground-level ozone to 70 parts per billion from 75 ppb. An Environmental Protection Agency scientific panel previously recommended a new standard of "lower than 70 ppb within a range down to 60 ppb," meaning the new rule is set at the upper limit of what the scientists recommended. The scientists also advised against setting the limit at the upper limit of the range, stating that 70 ppb "provides little margin of safety for the protection of public health, particularly for sensitive subpopulations" like children and the elderly.

According to The New York Times, the EPA had sought public comment on a 60 ppb plan, but industry lobbyists then "waged an all-fronts campaign" to urge the agency to publish as weak a standard as possible.

Exposure to ozone, a precursor of smog, has been linked to increased risk of early death, as well as heart disease, respiratory diseases like asthma, and adverse pregnancy outcomes such as early birth and low birth weight. The public health benefits of reducing the allowable threshold for ozone will save the country $2.9 billion to $5.9 billion annually in 2025, according to the EPA, while the companies attempting to comply will incur an estimated $1.4 billion in annual costs.

Still, industry groups sharply criticized the rule, saying the expense of complying will "inflict pain" on companies.

"After an unprecedented level of outreach by manufacturers and other stakeholders, the worst-case scenario was avoided," the president of the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Man­u­fac­tur­ers, Jay Tim­mons, said in a statement Thursday. "However, make no mistake: The new ozone standard will inflict pain on companies that build things in America—and destroy job opportunities for American workers."

Environmental groups, which hoped for a 60 ppb level, called the rule a disappointment.

"Setting the safest recommended standard would have saved almost 6,500 lives and avoided nearly 1.5 million more asthma attacks per year than the smog pollution level the administration has chosen," the Natural Resources Defense Council's senior attorney, John Walke, said in a statement Thursday. "The revised standard will provide real health benefits compared to today's unsafe level of 75 ppb. But by setting a health standard that does not adequately protect Americans against harmful levels of smog pollution, President Obama has missed a major opportunity."

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy defended the decision Thursday, emphasizing that scientific evidence guided the decision.

"Right now the best available clinical data shows that 70 ppb is the lowest exposure that causes adverse health effects," McCarthy said. "While some studies have shown effects in adults at levels lower than 70 ppb, those studies have not concluded that those effects are harmful... we're doing what the science says."

In accordance with the Clean Air Act, states will have to meet the standards between 2020 and 2037, depending on the current levels of ozone pollution.