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New EPA Ozone Standard Falls Short, Fails to Adequately Protect Public Health

March 18, 2008

(Washington, DC) In a final rule announced yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tightened the national air quality standard for ozone, but not to the level recommended by the Agency’s independent science advisors and a host of health and environmental organizations. Ground-level ozone, commonly known as smog, is the nation’s most pervasive air pollutant.

“Once again, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson has shown that he is willing to put politics before protecting the health of the American public,” said Dr. Michael McCally, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). Exposure to ozone has been linked to a range of health effects, including wheezing, coughing, reduced lung function, asthma attacks, heart attacks, stroke and premature death. Children, the elderly and individuals suffering from respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of ozone. “While the revised standard is a slight improvement, millions of Americans will continue to breathe dangerous levels of ozone,” Dr. McCally added.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is obligated to establish national air quality standards at levels that protect public health, including the health of sensitive populations, with an adequate margin of safety. The current ozone standard, effectively set at 0.084 parts per million (ppm), will be lowered to 0.075 ppm under the new rule announced by Johnson yesterday. Last spring, however, EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) unanimously recommended that the standard be set at a level between 0.060 and 0.070 ppm, while the Agency’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee urged EPA to set the standard at the low end of this range (0.060 ppm) in order to protect the health of sensitive children. PSR joined 15 major medical societies and public health organizations in supporting an ozone standard of 0.060 ppm.

In recent weeks, EPA received tremendous pressure from both the White House and industry lobbyists to scale back the new ozone standard because of concerns about implementation costs. When he announced his final decision on the level of the new standard, Administrator Johnson also declared his intention to seek changes to the Clean Air Act that would allow for the consideration of economic costs when setting air quality standards. “The Clean Air Act makes very clear that science, and only science, should dictate our nation’s air quality standards. Unfortunately, EPA decided to ignore both the law and the science in setting a new ozone standard that fails to adequately protect public health,” Dr. McCally said. “That Administrator Johnson is now attempting to undermine the Clean Air Act itself in order to conform to the wishes of industry and the White House is absolutely reprehensible,” he added.

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