EPA’s Smog Rule Falls Short of Protecting People’s Health, the Environment

The EPA recently set a weak smog standard, ignoring calls from medical professionals and community groups.

Mostovyi Sergii Igorevich/Shutterstock
The EPA recently set a weak smog standard, ignoring calls from medical professionals and community groups. (Mostovyi Sergii Igorevich/Shutterstock)

This page was published 8 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

Over a year ago, mothers, students and asthmatics reminded the EPA that its job is to protect public health and the environment and to make sure the air we breathe is clean. Some of them traveled six hours by bus to tell their stories.

For example, Anne Morton attended a hearing last January and made an impassioned plea to the EPA:

“We don’t have anybody else. We depend on you. Who is our advocate if you’re not?”

Morton is right: The Clean Air Act says the EPA’s job is to make sure the air we breathe is healthy—for kids, for people with asthma and for everyone else.

In its standard for ozone pollution, also known as smog, released in October 2015, the EPA didn’t fully do its job. Together, the Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the National Parks Conservation Association and WE ACT for Environmental Justice, represented by Earthjustice, made their case today, on Earth Day, challenging the EPA’s weak smog standard for not protecting public health and the environment.

While the EPA made the standard a bit stronger by decreasing the allowable limit for smog pollution from 75 to 70 parts per billion (ppb), the standard is far weaker than medical experts have called for. It’s also on the high end of the recommendation that the EPA’s own science advisors made in 2008. Eight years later, the EPA has much more scientific proof that shows ozone causes breathing problems, even in healthy people. (It’s important to note that the EPA is required to set a standard that’s safe not just for healthy people, but also for kids with asthma.)

The other problem with the EPA’s smog standard is that the agency agreed that breathing an average of 72 ppb of ozone for eight hours a day causes harmful health effects in otherwise healthy people. But municipalities are allowed to satisfy the EPA’s standard even if they have multiple days each year—dozens of days in some years—with smog pollution levels above 72 ppb. For example, communities like Columbia, South Carolina, Port Arthur, Texas, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, won’t have to clean up their smog problems even though they have numerous days in which the air is unhealthy to breathe.

This standard doesn’t make any sense. The EPA is supposed to ensure the air is safe for healthy people and for people with asthma. Yet the agency has set an ozone pollution standard that it admits allows smog that’s unsafe for both groups. Even areas that comply with the EPA’s standard can—and many do—experience days with ozone pollution at or above 72 ppb.

Ozone is also bad for the environment—especially plants and trees—and the EPA’s standard doesn’t do much to help there, either. Ozone causes plants and trees to grow more slowly, and it can blacken and wither plant leaves, harming not only forests, but also food crops. And by interfering with plant and tree growth, ozone can throw off the balance of entire ecosystems.

The EPA’s science advisors and the National Park Service have told the EPA to set a standard that protects against these harms, but the EPA has refused to do so yet again.

All this has a real-world impact. We know ozone pollution causes people to have asthma and heart attacks. It forces kids to stay indoors instead of playing outside. It causes people to miss work because of health problems. It degrades ecosystems and deprives nature of its full health and beauty.

And the effects are nationwide. According to the America Lung Association’s 2016 State of the Air Report, more than half the people in the United States live in areas with unhealthy ozone levels. 

The EPA knows ozone pollution can harm healthy people and the environment. Yet the agency has set a standard that won’t protect either from this pollution. It’s time the EPA did its job—and we’re here to make sure it does. 

Seth joined Earthjustice in 2010 and works in the Washington, D.C. office.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.