New Smog Pollution Standard Falls Short of Science, Protecting Public Health

EPA rejects unanimous advice from its own scientists, ignores doctors and health professionals


David Baron, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500
Paul Cort, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6700

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced a new 75 parts-per-billion (ppb) health standard for ground level ozone — commonly referred to as smog. Although somewhat stronger than the old 80 ppb standard, the new standard still falls far short of the much stronger standard that scientists, doctors and public health experts said is needed to protect public health.

Earthjustice, on behalf of the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and other conservation groups filed suit against the EPA in 2003 for the agency’s failure to set smog standards as required by law. Today’s smog standard comes in response to a court-ordered deadline in that lawsuit.

“EPA has taken a baby step instead of the strong action doctors say is needed to protect our lungs,” said David Baron, an attorney at Earthjustice. “EPA’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee unanimously called for a much more protective standard in the 60 to 70 ppb range, but the agency still set the standard at 75 parts per billion, allowing much more pollution than scientists say is safe.

Smog pollution contributes to thousands of premature deaths nationwide every year. “The science is clear: we need much stronger protection from smog than EPA gave us today,” Baron added.

“EPA’s refusal to follow the recommendations of its science advisors and the uniform recommendations of the medical and public health community means that polluted areas like Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley will not see the aggressive action from air pollution agencies that is necessary to address the ongoing public health crises in these areas,” said Paul Cort, an Earthjustice attorney in our California office.

In a major reversal, EPA also refused to adopt a separate standard urged by its science advisers and the National Park Service to protect forests, plants and crops from smog impacts. Ozone pollution can cause substantial damage to trees and plants, stunting their growth, making them much more susceptible to disease, and leading to the yellowing or mottling of leaves. The science advisors unanimously called for a special growing season standard to protect forests and crops from ozone damage, and the Park Service strongly agreed, but EPA completely rejected their advice. EPA originally proposed a stronger standard to protect forests, and Earthjustice, Environmental Defense, and other groups had urged adoption of the most protective alternative offered.

“It’s disgraceful that EPA has refused to protect our forests and parklands from smog damage,” said Baron. “Protecting our forests is crucial in the fight against global warming, but EPA is allowing smog levels that can cause serious harm.”

In addition to the thousands of public comments, Earthjustice also generated over 50,000 signatures to a petition to the EPA calling for stronger smog protections as part of the “Adopt the Sky” campaign. Concerned citizens signed the petition and left personal messages about cleaning up our air.

In September, Representative Chris Smith (R_NJ) sent a letter to EPA that was signed by 22 members of Congress calling for a standard of no more than 60 to 70 parts per billion.

“These 22 members of Congress were clear that a 75 parts-per-billion standard was not strong enough to protect public health,” said Ben Dunham, legislative counsel at Earthjustice. “On behalf of their constituents, from New Jersey to Oregon, these members of Congress wanted a more protective smog standard. Unfortunately, EPA did not deliver.”

Ozone is a severe lung irritant linked to asthma, chest pain, increased risk of infection, increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits and even death.

“This standard lets the polluters and the agencies off the hook, and sentences another generation of children to grow up breathing unhealthy air,” Cort added. “People need to understand that California, even though it has the reputation of being aggressive in addressing air pollution, has never and will never take action to clean the air beyond the national standards. By setting national ozone standards that are not health protective, EPA is guaranteeing that much of California will remain an unhealthy place to breathe.” 

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.