The United States is set to get a new rule on a dangerous form of air pollution this week.
The Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to release its final rule on ozone levels by October 1, a regulation that will seek to reduce the amount of ozone in the air. Ozone is the main ingredient in smog and is created when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds — both of which can come from car exhaust, gasoline, and power plants — interact with sunlight. Right now, the EPA’s standard for ground-level ozone is set at 75 parts per billion (ppb). Last year, the agency proposed to lower this standard of acceptable ozone levels to somewhere between 65 and 70 ppb.
The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, a group of scientists that advise the agency, said in a letter last year that setting the standard below 70 ppb — and, ideally, as low as 60 ppb — would be the best move the agency could make for public health. Breathing in ozone can contribute to a range of health impacts, including, according to the letter, “decrease in lung function, increase in respiratory symptoms, and increase in airway inflammation.”
60 ppb would certainly offer more public health protection than levels of 70 ppb or 65 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 letter states. “Thus, our policy advice is to set the level of the standard lower than 70 ppb within a range down to 60 ppb, taking into account your judgment regarding the desired margin of safety to protect public health, and taking into account that lower levels will provide incrementally greater margins of safety.”
The EPA itself said in 2010 that 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. Ozone affects children, the elderly, and people with asthma most of all, but the current standard of 75 ppb leads to impacts for healthy adults who spend a significant chunk of their time outside as well.
The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee states that a standard of 70 ppb provides “little margin of safety for the protection of public health, particularly for sensitive subpopulations.”
“Although a level of 70 ppb is more protective of public health than the current standard, it may not meet the statutory requirement to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety,” the letter reads.
But it’s not clear yet what the EPA will choose as its final standard. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, some say that the agency will likely choose 70 ppb, while others are more convinced that the agency will bring the standard down below 70 to 68 ppb.
Though the EPA’s science advisers make clear that anything closer to 60 ppb would be ideal, other interests have been lobbying the EPA to keep the new standard closer to the current standard. The National Association of Manufacturers has released ads against the administration’s push to change the standard, and the association claims that the new rule will “punish hardworking manufacturers” and cause job losses. Since ground-level ozone comes from a variety of industries — chemical manufacturers, power plants, autobody paint shops, print shops, agricultural operations, and even gas-powered lawn equipment — a range of different companies would be affected by the new rule. To comply with it, they might need to switch to a lower-emissions fuel source or shut down old plants.
The American Petroleum Institute has also fought against a new rule, claiming that a standard of 68 ppb would leave 1,433 counties out of compliance with ozone rules, putting an economic strain on those counties (the Sierra Club, however, found in its own analysis that that number was highly exaggerated).
Industry opposition to a new ozone rule isn’t surprising: when the Bush administration brought the ozone standard down from approximately 84 ppb to 75 ppb, the outcry from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers was similar to what it is today.
Some lawmakers, too, have fought against a new ozone standard.
“Don’t you believe that having a good paying job with health benefits is also protective of human health?” Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) asked EPA Acting Assistant Administrator Janet McCabe during a hearing in June. “You’re not making those cost-benefit analyses.”
The EPA isn’t required to consider economic aspects of air quality regulations under the Clean Air Act. But according to EPA analysis, an ozone standard of 70 ppb would cost $3.9 billion each year, and a 65 ppb standard would cost $15 billion each year. A 70 ppb standard would also bring $6.4 to $13 billion in benefits, including “the value of preventing significant health effects in children and adults,” and a 65 ppb standard would bring benefits of $19 to $38 billion.
In the lead-up to the final rule, some have been pushing the EPA to issue a strong version of the regulation. Seventy mayors from around the U.S. signed on to a letter supporting the “strongest possible clean air protections against smog pollution, also known as ground-level ozone.” Multiple health groups also wrote a letter to President Obama last month, saying that a new rule will help protect all Americans, but especially those communities most at risk from pollution, including children, the elderly, and minorities.
“By adopting a truly protective ozone pollution limit, America will be closer to fulfilling the purpose of the Clean Air Act: to protect the health of all Americans from deadly dangers in the air we breathe,” the letter states. “The science clearly supports a much stronger ozone limit. Please, make the most of this opportunity, and give Americans the protection they deserve.”