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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Will EPA Clear the Air on Smog?

Air Date: Week of

(Courtesy of United States Geologic Survey)

The Environmental Protection Agency's science advisors say current standards on ozone, or smog, do not protect human health. Will EPA strengthen the standard? Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

Ozone is a nasty gas that forms when pollutants from tailpipes and smokestacks cook in the sun. It’s the main component of smog and it contributes to all sorts of health problems — lung, cardiovascular disease — it can even kill you.

A science advisory board recently told the Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen its standards for ozone pollution, and the Administrator of the EPA has just announced his decision. But as Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young tells us, it hasn’t exactly cleared the air.

YOUNG: It’s been ten years since the EPA last set standards for ozone. The American Lung Association’s Janice Nolen says numerous studies in the past decade show that the old standard is not protecting the public from smog.

NOLEN: Ozone acts like a sunburn on the lungs, it is an irritant. It sends people to the hospital emergency room, it triggers asthma attacks and now we’re learning recent studies have indicated it can actually shorten life.

YOUNG: The current standard for ozone is 80 parts per billion—parts per billion is a measure of the molecules in the air. The 22 independent members of EPA’s Clean Air Science Advisory Committee reviewed the issue and reached a unanimous decision. In March the advisors told EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson there was no scientific justification for keeping the current standard. They recommended strengthening it to protect health with an adequate margin of safety. Johnson says he agrees.

JOHNSON: As a 26-year scientist and based upon the current science, the current standard is insufficient to protect public health. That’s why I propose to toughen the standard.

YOUNG: Johnson proposes an ozone standard somewhere between 70 and 75 parts per billion. That’s tighter than the current one, but barely in the range his science advisors recommended. Science Advisory Committee Chair Dr. Rogene Henderson says her committee wanted a stronger level, somewhere between 60 and 70.

HENDERSON: I think it’s a step in the right direction and we’d like for the step to be a little bigger step, but at least it’s in the right direction.

YOUNG: Other public health advocates see the EPA proposal as more of a sidestep than step ahead. That’s because in addition to his proposal to strengthen the standard, Johnson also said the EPA will still accept comments on keeping the standard where it is.

JOHNSON: I want to provide an opportunity both on the upper end of scale, and on the lower end of the scale, to provide comments so that the agency will have all information on which to base an informed decision and a final.

YOUNG: The lung association’s Nolen calls that disappointing.

NOLEN: There is no basis in any evidence that we’ve seen for keeping the existing standard so why would it even be on the table?

YOUNG: Frank O’Donnell at the advocacy group Clean Air Watch thinks the answer to that has to do with the industry lobbyists who visited the White House in the weeks just before EPA’s announcement—firms representing the chemical, power and auto industries all weighed in.

Ground level ozone smog in Los Angeles (Courtesy of United States Geologic Survey)

O’DONNELL: We are really concerned that EPA appears to be rolling out the red carpet to industry, inviting them to flood EPA’s mailbox with protests of any change in the current standard

YOUNG: The ozone decision comes in the wake of another bruising clean air battle last year. O’Donnell says EPA bowed to industry pressure then when administrator Johnson ignored his science advisors on the Clean Air Standard for fine particulate matter. O’Donnell says the ozone decision is looking like another test of the administrator’s will.

O’DONNELL: Well I think that the EPA’s proposal reflects a conflict between science and politics that is yet to be resolved.

YOUNG: Industry groups make it clear they want the ozone standard to stay right where it is.

BRENDLE: We’re just not in agreement with whatever it is that the EPA scientists have decided.

YOUNG: That’s Bryan Brendle with the National Association of Manufacturers. Brendle says most of the country’s major metropolitan areas are still struggling to meet the old ozone standard. A new, stricter one would mean hundreds more counties out of compliance and more businesses facing regulation and higher energy costs.

BRENDLE: If you’re a manufacturer, a power producer or some sort of producer of energy such as a refinery you will be subject to major air emissions controls. Those costs are passed on to consumers of electricity.

YOUNG: Clean air advocates counter that ozone pollution acts like a hidden tax on the public, pushing up health care costs. EPA will hear plenty from both sides in the coming months. It’s taking public comment for 90 days and scheduling hearings in late summer in some of the country’s smoggiest cities: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Houston. The Agency’s final decision is due by March 2008. For Living on Earth I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

[MUSIC: The Roots “The Seed (2.0)” from ‘Phrenology’ (MCA Records – 2002)]



EPA's new ozone proposal

EPA's Clean Air Science Advisory Committee's recommendations on ozone

Counties State-by-State that the EPA considers would be out of Compliance with the New Standard on Ozone

Our past coverage of EPA scientists and administrators disagreeing over a new soot standard in 2006


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