Climate

EPA Announces New Ozone Limits, Disappointing Environmental Groups

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the new ozone standard Thursday.

The EPA has been promising to release new ozone standards for some time, freaking out Republican congressmen and delighting people who worry about our rising asthma rates.

Today, the agency finalized its new ozone standard, which environmental groups are calling inadequate, insufficient, and “weak-kneed.” The rule, mandated by the Clean Air Act, reduces acceptable ozone levels from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb.

“This action falls far short of what’s needed to protect the one in 10 children who live with asthma,” Lisa Garcia, a vice president at Earthjustice, said in a statement. “The science shows that ozone is dangerous to these kids at the levels allowed by this new standard.”

The environmental law group predicted that the new standard would be challenged in court.

Gound-level ozone — more commonly known as smog — is a serious health hazard. It has been linked to asthma and lung disease. In past decades, the United States has lowered levels of ground-level ozone significantly, due largely to efforts through the Clean Air Act, including emissions limits on cars and trucks. Ozone primarily affects children, the elderly, and people with asthma, but the current standard of 75 ppb leads to impacts for healthy adults who spend a significant chunk of their time outside as well.

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EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called Thursday’s announcement “another milestone in EPA’s long history of protecting people and the environment.” On a call with reporters, she emphasized that she used her own judgment, based on the newest scientific studies, to set the standard. A 70 ppb standard was within the recommendations made to the agency, she said.

Lowering the standard will prevent 160,000 missed school days, 230,000 asthma attacks, and up to 660 premature deaths per year by 2025, according to the EPA. The benefits will be worth $2.9 billion to $5.9 billion per year — up to four times as much as implementing the standard will cost, McCarty said.

The EPA is required, under the Clean Air Act, to review ozone limits every five years. The 75 ppb limit was set in 2008. However, the EPA’s own science advisory group had recommended going as low as 60 ppb.

“The recommended lower bound of 60 ppb would certainly offer more public health protection than levels of 70 ppb or 65 ppb and would provide an adequate margin of safety,” the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee said last year.

In fact, the EPA previously said a standard of 60 ppb would help prevent 4,000 to 12,000 premature deaths and 21,000 hospital visits. It would also reduce the number of missed school and work days by 2.5 million.

Many groups — including medical groups — applauded the new standard. “The EPA’s stronger ozone standard is a great step forward in reducing the amount of dangerous pollutants in our environment, and will ensure cleaner air for asthma and allergy patients,” Dr. Cary Sennett, president and CEO of AAFA, said in a statement. “However, AAFA supports an even lower standard of 60 ppb, which would better protect the health of the American people.”

According to projections from the EPA, only 14 counties in the United States, outside of California, will not meet the standard by 2025. Attainment timelines are “quite long,” McCarthy said. California, she said, had additional “challenges.”

The fight against lowering the limit has been strong. The National Association of Manufacturers paid for advertisements this summer claiming, “It’s not just manufacturers who will bear this burden, Americans across the country will feel the costs of this expensive, new regulation.” Ground-level ozone can be released by chemical manufacturers, power plants, autobody paint shops, print shops, agricultural operations, and even gas-powered lawn equipment, as well as cars and trucks.