D.C. Circuit Court Rejects More Protective Ozone Standards

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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One Comment

  1. Posted August 3, 2013 at 8:16 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for posting your blog about the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejecting petitions for a more protective air quality standard for ground-level ozone. It’s nice to know there are some logical minds in Washington.

    While none of us wants dirtier air, establishing a three year, 4th highest, 8 hour ozone average lower than the present 75 ppb. would do nothing more than throw “an estimated 96% of US cities into non-attainment and potentially lead to a $1 trillion hit to our economy”, according to a USA opinion piece from 2011 by Thomas Pyle.

    The reason this will happen is simple. As you know, it is a scientific fact that ground level ozone can form in the presence of NOx and sunlight (UV). It is also a known fact that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can elevate and extend that chemical process. While cities and regions across the country can lower their anthropogenic NOx and VOC emissions, the amount of sunlight and weather related factors that can cause ground level ozone are beyond our control. These factors are “Acts of God” and can change a city’s ozone levels from acceptable to exceeding the 8 hour standard, even though that city’s emissions remain constant. It is also a fact that cities located in southern latitudes (Texas) are more likely to have high ozone events due to their longer summer season. Furthermore, foreign transport of pollution has been documented and continues to contribute to background ozone levels. In fact, when cities like Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston are having high ozone events, small towns like Seguin (population 25,000) and even isolated areas like Big Bend can see 8 hour average ozone levels exceed 65 ppb. when dirty high pressure systems move into Texas during the passage of late and early season cool fronts.

    As a life long asthmatic, I am very interested in cleaning the air that I breath, but I’m also about knowing the facts. While Texas is one of the highest ozone producing states in the country, it also has some of the lowest asthma rates in the country. Go to the latest “State of the Air” report from the American Lung Association” and see for yourself. Also, please feel free to check out my website, http://www.ozoneinformation.com and my blog for additional information. I have links to two studies from Dr. Honeycutt, from TCEQ, finding no link to hospitalizations and deaths in Texas during high ozone events.