Earthjustice Weighs in on EPA's Ozone Standards

Agency stands firm on public health protections, rejects ozone sunblock theory

Earthjustice today expressed support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision not to weaken key air quality standards for ozone. A final decision published by EPA today found a lack of scientific support for industry claims that ground-level ozone — or smog — is beneficial to humans and protects them from harmful ultraviolet radiation. The finding that it would be inappropriate to weaken the 1997 standards came in EPA’s long-awaited response to a May 1999 court-ordered remand in American Trucking v. USEPA, a case in which industry launched a multi-pronged challenge to the 1997 smog standards.

“Industry’s efforts to equate smog with sun-block is yet another dodge by polluters who don’t want to clean up,” said Howard Fox of Earthjustice, which represents American Lung Association in the case. “Asthmatics, kids, and others who suffer the health impacts of smog need the improved protection offered by these standards.”

At issue are the 1997 national air quality standards for ozone. According to EPA estimates, these standards, once implemented, will prevent tens of thousands of occurrences of respiratory symptoms such as painful breathing, reductions of lung function, and asthma attacks — as well as many hospital admissions and emergency room visits. During EPA’s deliberations on the 1997 standards, industry argued that controlling ground-level ozone — also known as tropospheric ozone — could actually harm public health by allowing more ultraviolet B sunlight to reach earth. In the 1999 American Trucking decision, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit directed EPA to consider the issue, although the court expressed no opinion on what conclusion the agency should reach.

“These industry claims are nonsense,” said John L. Kirkwood, President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Lung Association. “Ozone is a toxic gas that is like getting a sunburn on your lungs. How can this possibly be beneficial? We applaud EPA for rejecting this pseudo-science argument.”

After considering public comments, EPA decided to reaffirm the 1997 standard, indicating that the allegations about ultraviolet sunlight are “too uncertain at this time to warrant any relaxation in the level of public health protection previously determined to be requisite to protect against demonstrated direct adverse respiratory effects of exposure to O3 [ozone] in the ambient air.” Moreover, EPA expressed the view that the influence of ground-level ozone on ultraviolet radiation is likely “very small from a public health perspective.”


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