"This is one of the most important protection measures we can take to safeguard our health and our environment. Smog in the air we breathe can cause difficulty breathing and aggravate asthma, especially in children," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "Reconsidering these standards and ensuring acceptable levels of ground-level ozone could cut health care costs and make our cities healthier, safer places to live, work and play."
The Bush standards were weaker than those recommended by the EPA's own science advisors, prompting a court challenge by some of the nation's largest public health and conservation groups, including the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, and Appalachian Mountain Club.
September 16 was the court-ordered deadline for EPA to report its plans to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
"This action gives hope to millions of people suffering from polluted air throughout the nation," said attorney David Baron with the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice which represents the plaintiff groups.
"The Bush administration's EPA ignored the unanimous advice of its own science advisors and denied Americans the protection they deserve," said Baron. "Stronger standards could save thousands of lives and prevent severe damage to forests."
Smog forms when emissions from industrial facilities, power plants, landfills and motor vehicles react in the presence of sunlight. Scientific studies have linked exposure to ground-level ozone, the primary component of smog, to respiratory health problems ranging from decreased lung function and aggravated asthma to increased emergency department visits, hospital admissions, and even premature death.
Smog hangs over New York City (Photo by UrbanFeel)
Exposure is especially dangerous to small children and senior citizens, who are warned to stay indoors on smoggy days.
The EPA's reconsideration will cover both primary and secondary ozone standards. The EPA sets primary air quality standards to protect public health, including the health of sensitive groups, such as children and people with asthma.
The secondary standard is set to protect public welfare and the environment, including protection against visibility impairment, damage to animals, crops, vegetation, and buildings.
Jackson said the EPA will conduct a thorough review of the science that guided the 2008 decision, including more than 1,700 scientific studies and any public comments from that rulemaking process. The agency will also review the findings of EPA’s independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which recommended stronger smog standards.
The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee had recommended that the agency set the health standard for ground-level ozone at between 60 and 70 parts-per-billion.
Instead, then EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson set the standard at 75 parts-per-billion, leaving asthmatics, young children, the elderly and others at greater risk for lung and heart disease than the standard recommended by health experts, the plaintiff groups contend.
Jackson said the agency will propose any revisions to the ozone standards by December 21, 2009 and will issue a final decision by August 31, 2010.
The agency will identify areas violating the new standards within a year after that, and require completion of cleanup plans by 2013.
President and CEO of the American Lung Association Charles Connor said, "We look forward to working with the EPA to arrive at a new standard in 2010 that provides real protection for millions of people who live where the air they breathe can not only make them sick, it can kill."
"Last year EPA disregarded not only the science, but the requirements of federal law, the Clean Air Act, that directs EPA to set this limit, which is called the national ambient air quality standard, at a level that protects the health of the public based solely on the scientific evidence," said Connor.
"Ozone smog threatens the health of infants, children, seniors and people who have asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other lung diseases," Connor explained. "For these people, breathing smog-polluted air can make them cough and wheeze, restrict their airways, worsen their diseases, force them to the hospital and even kill them. Even healthy young adults and people who exercise or work outdoors can suffer from high levels of ozone pollution."
"We hope that from this review," he said, "the EPA will set a standard that protects all of us from this dangerous pollutant."
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.