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Our Lungs v. Smog: Closing In On A Win

Air quality and public health could drastically improve in the United States if the EPA enacts stronger ozone protections now under consideration.

Ground-level ozone is the main component of smog—that hazy layer of air pollution that makes it hard for us, and especially our children and babies, to breathe on hot summer days. Ozone is linked to increased asthma attacks, lung damage and breathing problems.

The Bush administration recommended far weaker standards than those proposed by the EPA’s own science advisors, prompting a court challenge by Earthjustice on behalf of public health and conservation groups.

Earthjustice put the lawsuit on hold after the Obama Administration committed to reconsider these standards.

The current EPA has now proposed to strengthen ozone standards so that more Americans are better protected against the pollutant, which is linked to premature deaths, thousands of emergency room visits, and tens of thousands of asthma attacks each year. Ozone also damages forests and plants, and according to the National Park Service, threatens many of our national parks.

But just how safe will the people and parks of the United States be?

The strong end of the ozone standard that addresses human health implications, specifically 60 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone in the air over an eight-hour period, would represent a significant move to improve air quality in this country and to protect the American people from suffering. The EPA estimates more than 187.3 million people would be protected. The weak end of the range, 70 ppb, would also be an improvement over the current standard, 75 ppb, but would still leave many people at grave risk, according to public health experts.

EPA is also proposing a separate ozone standard to protect forest and plants from ozone damage. The agency’s science advisors and the National Park Service have been calling for this separate "secondary" standard to limit total exposure of trees and plants to ozone over the entire growing season. The Bush White House intervened at the last minute in 2008 to squash an EPA proposal to adopt such a standard, but EPA is now moving to reverse that wrong-headed decision. As in the human health standard, the agency has proposed a range of standards to protect trees and plants during the growing season.

This ozone standard is reflective of every other environmental challenge in today’s vitriolic, special-interest-driven political atmosphere. On one side stand 15 of the nation’s leading health organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Lung Association, American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, American Thoracic Society, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and more. They are joined by countless environmental organizations; and all of the EPA’s own science advisors—who are pointing to overwhelming scientific evidence that shows that ozone contributes to asthma, allergies, and hospital visits; impedes lung function and development; and drives up health care costs nationally.

On the other side stand wealthy and powerful lobbies and polluter industries that are showing up in force—with their wallets—to prevent measures that require them to reduce their pollution and emissions.

The big polluters claim that a more protective ozone standard will be too costly and will lead to dire economic consequences. But the law requires EPA to set standards based solely on what’s needed to protect public health and welfare. Moreover, industry is just wrong in saying that we can’t have both clean air and a strong economy. Studies have repeatedly shown that the Clean Air Act is one of the most cost-effective federal laws ever adopted, producing huge public health benefits without impeding economic growth.

Dire economic consequences will only prevail if we rely on the old ways and dirty industries of the 19th century. The world economy of tomorrow must be led by the innovation and ingenuity of clean industries. A nation with cleaner water to drink, safer air to breathe, a healthier population, and more vital ecosystems is safer, stronger and better equipped to lead the world economy.