TCEQ-Sponsored Workshop Undermines Public Health Benefits of Ozone Standard

ozone workshop smokestack 6.1.15Several weeks ago, I attended an ozone workshop sponsored by the toxicology division at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and facilitated by Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA). Ozone, a component of smog, is a harmful air pollutant that is associated with adverse health effects including asthma attacks, decreased lung function, and premature death.

EPA has proposed new National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) within the range of 65-70 parts per billion (ppb), and, according to TCEQ, this workshop was "designed to provide an independent evaluation and synthesis of key considerations for approaching the difficult ozone NAAQS decision."

Given the importance of this pollutant to public health, it is unfortunate a state environmental agency – that has plenty of other higher priority issues – chose to spend taxpayer money on a workshop designed to mislead the public and present a one-sided perspective on the issue.

What were the problems with TCEQ’s workshop?

  1. It was unnecessary.

The comment period for the new proposed standards closed well before the workshop was held. So even if the agency expected to sway commenters, it was too late to participate in the public comment process.

The agency did say they hoped the workshop would inform the next review cycle. If that were the case, why wouldn’t they have waited until the next review cycle had started, when there would have been more literature (including research put forward from the agency) to discuss?

Additionally, a scientific assessment on the ozone literature has already been done. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) convened the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), an independent group of scientists, to review the science on ozone. This workshop didn’t present any issues that haven’t already been discussed as part of a larger, more robust, more transparent process.

Ultimately, though, the workshop was unnecessary given the tremendous progress the state has already made in improving air quality. In the TCEQ’s own assessment of Houston’s air quality, for example, ozone concentrations have improved 30 percent in the last 14 years while the population has increased over 34 percent.

  1. It was not independent.

The workshop was billed as an “independent workshop,” suggesting multiple perspectives and viewpoints on the science and policy of the standard would be covered.

However, the choice of the word independent was misleading – this workshop did not provide a balanced, credible, or independent scientific assessment on the available science on ozone exposure and adverse health outcomes. Instead, the workshop was predicated on attacking stronger ozone standards, currently proposed by EPA and broadly supported by leading scientific and health organizations. This point was emphasized repeatedly throughout the three-day meeting, giving the false impression the EPA was engaged in unilateral actions to destroy the US economy by overstating the health impacts of one of the country’s most ubiquitous pollutants.

In addition, there was no discussion regarding the myriad number of groups who support an even stronger standard than what EPA has proposed. The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, American Thoracic Society, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and Children’s Environmental Health Network, as well as many others, support a standard of 60ppb.

The national process (outlined in the Clean Air Act and established to advise the agency on the science of ozone) is actually independent. A recent Inspector General report that reviewed 47 CASAC and Council member appointments confirmed this, determining “EPA has adequate procedures for identifying potential ethics concerns, including financial conflicts of interest, independence issues and appearances of a lack of impartiality[1].”

  1. Workshop participants presented a one-sided view of the science and economics around the standard.

Some of the notable speakers over the three day workshop included:

  • Sayed Sadredin, Executive Director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, focused on California’s experience in meeting ozone NAAQS. He mentioned several times how industry has cried wolf before on the costs of meeting the ozone NAAQS, but this time it is “for real.” Interestingly, Change.org put out a petition last year to call for Sadredin’s resignation on the following basis: “We believe the San Joaquin Valley deserves an Air District Director that values air quality as a public health issue.”
  • Sabine Lange, TCEQ toxicologist, presented a “new” analysis by the agency examining ozone dose, or the amount of exposure a person would receive based on ventilation rate and activity level. Not only did the analysis oversimplify the issue of dose, but it left out key factors of dose including dose rate, the need to normalize ventilation rate to body surface area, and the need to correct for filtered air responses. Additionally, the agency continues to focus on the “mean,” or average response in perfectly healthy human individuals – effectively ignoring those vulnerable members of the population, including asthmatics, people with COPD, the elderly, the obese, and children (all together representing about one half of the population). The Clean Air Act is clear in that the primary NAAQS must be set at a level “requisite to protect the public health” with “an adequate margin of safety.”
  • Julie Goodman, an industry toxicologist with consulting firm Gradient, focused on the “uncertainty” around the lower estimates of the ozone exposure studies and mortality statistics. Goodman spent a good deal of time trying to discredit a few key studies from the ozone literature. The trouble with Goodman’s criticisms is the scientific evidence on ozone exposure and adverse health outcomes is only becoming more compelling over time, as represented by multiple reports published after the 2008 ozone NAAQS review. Given this new evidence, it is difficult to imagine how the agency could not issue a significantly stronger ozone standard.
  • Anne Smith and Scott Bloomberg of NERA Economic Consulting, an industry consulting firm, spent over two hours outlining their analysis of the proposed costs of the clean air rules, which they estimated was an order of magnitude above EPA estimates. No alternative perspectives were provided, the NERA assumptions were never challenged, and the benefits of the ozone NAAQS were not discussed. This was remarkable since: 1) there is a sophisticated, robust analysis criticizing NERA’s work on this very report, and 2) there has been a postmortem examination of the accuracy of EPA’s cost estimates following several of EPA’s rules. The conclusion? Most frequently, EPA has actually overestimated the costs associated with the rules studied.

The Takeaway?

EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment with an adequate margin of safety. In making our own day to day health decisions, we routinely give more deference to a precautionary approach in managing our health as opposed to a consequential one (which of us would drink milk 5 days past its expiration date even if it smelled fine?). And while a healthy individual might not experience an adverse health outcome at 60, 65, or even 70ppb ozone, the national standard isn’t promulgated just for them, but also for those who are especially vulnerable.

We are always open to engage in meaningful scientific debate to discuss critical public health issues. But spending close to half a million dollars of Texans’ taxpayer dollars for a one-sided showdown – with a predetermined outcome designed to undermine critical public health protections – doesn’t seem to be a wise investment for the people of Texas.

 

[1] US EPA (2013b). EPA Can Better Document Resolution of Ethics and Partiality Concerns in Managing Clean Air Federal Advisory Committees, EPA OIG Report No. 13-P-0387, September 11, 2013.

Photo source: Flickr/Billy Wilson

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