To Strengthen or Not To Strengthen: There Should Be No Question

Results of a bipartisan poll released just this week showed strong public support for clean air, with 69 percent of voters in support of updating Clean Air Act standards with stricter limits on air pollution. These results are significant given that during a public teleconference tomorrow, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to get an earful from industry, which has rounded up a powerful posse to dissuade the agency from establishing stronger, health-based standards on ozone.

All of the usual suspects are scheduled for comment: American Petroleum Institute, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, American Road and Transportation Builders Association, BP America Production Company, ExxonMobil Biomedical Sciences, Inc., National Association of Manufacturers, and even our own state environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Reading through the comments already submitted, it is clear that these groups are NOT supportive of more health-protective standards. Yet, a timely poll shows majority voter support for strong standards. Not only that, the science supports stronger standards as well. Then there are the legal mandates protecting human health, particularly the vulnerable subpopulations . . . like the 75 million children or the 37 million elderly, the 34 million with asthma, the 22 million with heart disease, or the 12 million with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). When you add up all of these subpopulations, it doesn’t seem like a subpopulation anymore, does it?

Even the drafters of the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments made it clear:  The millions of Americans who are vulnerable to respiratory ailments are entitled to protection with strong, health-based standards set at levels not only adequate to protect the average population, but also sensitive subpopulations, such as children, the elderly, and people with heart and lung disease. In fact, courts have repeatedly found that if a certain level of a pollutant “adversely affects the health of these sensitive individuals, EPA must strengthen the entire national standard.” [American Lung Assn. v. EPA, 134 F.3d 388, 390 (D.C. Cir. 1998).]

So what’s going on? Why are we even debating stronger ozone standards when public opinion, science and law weigh heavily in support? Why have powerful vested interests planted doubt about the possible outcome when it’s our health that stands to suffer?

To strengthen or not to strengthen? There simply should be no question.

More Background on Ozone Standards
In January 2009, EPA proposed stronger primary and secondary Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) based on evidence provided in 2008 by the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) and originally rejected by the previous EPA administration. CASAC had originally unanimously advised that the nation’s health standard should be between 0.060 to 0.070 parts per million and this time, the new EPA administration listened and backed the proposed range.

Then in September 2009, EPA delayed a final decision, deciding to reconsider the proposed stronger standards to “ensure they are scientifically sound and protective of public health and the environment.” Subsequently, CASAC upheld its original recommendation in a letter to EPA, once again basing it on science. In the letter, CASAC defended the originally proposed 0.060 to 0.070 parts per million range . . .

“In proposing this range, EPA has recognized the large body of data and risk analyses demonstrating that retention of the current standard would leave large numbers of individuals at risk for respiratory effects and/or other significant health impacts including asthma exacerbations, emergency room visits, hospital admissions and mortality.”

While EPA listens to more testimony from business tomorrow, readers should be reminded why strengthening the ozone standards really is in our own best interests. Consider, for example, that a new standard set at 60 ppb would prevent 58,000 asthma attacks and 21,000 fewer hospital and emergency department visits each year.

Additionally, those of us living in Texas stand to benefit even more from stronger standards. Last year’s American Lung Association report found that:

  • 21 of the 36 Texas counties studied received an F for having too many high ozone days.
  • Houston was the 7th most ozone-polluted city in the country.
  • Harris County, home to almost four million people, had 77 orange ozone days (unhealthy for sensitive populations), 16 red ozone days (unhealthy for the general population) and three purple ozone days (very unhealthy for the general population).

It’s also disconcerting that these facts were based on an even lower standard than CASAC currently recommends as within healthy limits.

Finally, last week The New York Times’ Bob Herbert suggested that America’s rich and corporate elite actually controlled our politicians and laws, endangering real democracy. It will be a very sad day should such influence prevail in the debate on stronger ozone standards. We urge CASAC to stand strong on the solid science and thousands of peer-reviewed papers regarding the harmful effects of ozone and to continue to support a standard that is protective of human health with an adequate margin of safety.

Millions of American lives are depending on it.

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SIDE NOTE: Recent state stats are turning Texan heads. While we have much to be proud of, there is plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to public health. See below an excerpt from The Texas Tribune, paying special attention to those I’ve underlined, which tell a story about our priorities.


At the bottom:
— Tax expenditures per capita (47th)
— Percent of population 25 and older with a high school diploma (50th)
Percent of poor people covered by Medicaid (49th)
Percent of population with employer-based health insurance (48th)
— Per capita spending on mental health (50th)
Per capita spending on Medicaid (49th)
Percent of non-elderly women with health insurance (50th)
Percent of women receiving prenatal care in first trimester (50th)
— Average credit score (49th)
— Workers’ compensation coverage (50th)

Near the top:
— Number of executions (1st)
— Public school enrollment (2nd)
Percent of uninsured children (1st)
— Percent of children living in poverty (4th)
Percent of population uninsured (1st)
— Percent of population living below poverty (4th)
— Percent of population with food insecurity (2nd)
— Overall birth rate (2nd)
Amount of carbon dioxide emissions (1st)
— Amount of toxic chemicals released into water (1st)
— Amount of hazardous waste generated (1st)

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