D.C. Circuit Court Rejects More Protective Ozone Standards

(This post originally appeared on our Texas Clean Air Matters blog)

I’ve written extensively about the potentially grave health effects of ground-level ozone (smog) and the need for stronger standards to address ozone pollution.  In 2008, the EPA set a national standard for ozone at 75 parts per billion—despite the fact that the nation’s leading medical societies and the EPA’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) warned that the standard was not stringent enough to protect Americans from adverse health effects.  A number of U.S. cities and counties petitioned the EPA to amend the standards to sufficient levels.  EDF joined the call for common-sense ozone standards, partnering with the National Resources Defense Council, American Lung Association, National Parks Conservation Association, Appalachian Mountain Club and Earthjustice to press for a more protective standard.

Last week, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected petitions for a more protective air quality standard for ground-level ozone.  The decision is deeply disappointing and in direct contradiction of ample scientific evidence showing the health hazards of ozone pollution at levels below the current standards.

Reasonable ozone standards are of particular importance to Texans.  Ozone tends to form from vehicle tailpipe emissions on hot sunny days—so it’s no surprise that a typical Texas summer day is a perfect incubator for ozone gas.  Texas has some of the highest ozone levels in the nation.  The American Lung association identified a number of Texas cities and counties as ozone danger areas—including Houston and Dallas, two of the largest cities in the United States.

Millions of Texans are exposed to dangerous ozone levels every summer.  Ozone can cause inflammation of the lungs, making breathing difficult or painful.  Increased lung irritation from ozone exacerbates asthma, emphysema, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases—increasing the risk of asthma attacks and other dangerous respiratory events.  Just a short period of moderate ozone exposure can push breathing problems over the edge; a 2010 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reported a 19% increase in ICU admissions on higher ozone days.  Another study published in Environmental Research Letters linked short-term exposure to ozone with increased hospital emissions among the elderly.  And in Houston, researchers have demonstrated a significant increase in risk of heart attacks within just a few hours of exposure to ozone.

While today’s decision declined to establish a reasonable, protective standard on national ozone levels, the EPA should move forward with stronger standards as it conducts its legally-required review of the 2008 standard.  There are a number of proven, cost-effective solutions to protect Americans from the dangers of smog.  The EPA should mitigate ozone pollution at the source by finalizing the “Tier 3” tailpipe emission standards, which would have significant benefits for Texans and save billions in healthcare costs going forward.  At the same time, the EPA should strengthen emissions standards for other sources of ozone like oil and gas development activities and coal-fired power plants.

Texas’ combination of steady oil and gas development, hot summers, and millions of cars on the road increases the potential for generation of harmful levels of ozone. The Clean Air Act is our strongest lever to protect public health from the impacts of pollutants like ozone.  I am confident that the latest assessment of the standard will result in a standard that better reflects the scientific literature and more adequately protects public health.

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