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Some of the nation's vitally important public health standards are coming under attack by polluters and other special interests who are pressuring Congress to roll back existing laws, like the Clean Air Act, and block necessary new clean air and clean water protections. Below is a summary of key public health standards that the EPA must address.


Standards to Reduce Toxic Power Plant Air Pollution

Goal: Establish standards to reduce toxic air pollution from power plants.

Health Benefits: Save as many as 17,000 American lives every year by 2016, and prevent up to 120,000 cases of aggravated asthma every year. The standards would also avoid more than 12,000 emergency room and hospital visits and prevent 850,000 lost work days each year.

Timeline: EPA proposed this rule March 16, 2011 and is currently accepting public comment through July 5, 2011. The standards must be finalized and signed by the EPA administrator in November 2011.

Formal rule name: National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants for Major Sources: Electric Generating Units.

Reducing Global Warming Pollution

Under the Clean Air Act, the pollution that causes global warming must be treated like any other air pollution. The Supreme Court affirmed this view in its landmark 2007 decision Massachusetts v. EPA and ordered the EPA to decide, based on the best available science, whether these pollutants pose a danger to public health or welfare. In December 2009, the EPA responded to the Supreme Court by issuing an "endangerment finding" determining that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases are dangerous to both health and welfare. This finding enables the EPA to use its authority to develop standards to reduce global warming pollution.

In April 2010 the EPA took its first steps to develop standards for vehicles, setting in motion standards for cars and light-duty trucks, and separate standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

The EPA also took its first steps to outline how it would approach standards to reduce pollution from businesses. The EPA issued the "Tailoring Rule" in May 2010 to make clear what kinds of businesses and what size of businesses will have to comply with new regulations on global warming pollution. The EPA estimates the standards will apply only to 1,600 of the biggest new or expanded pollution sources each year – those with 75,000 tons or more of global warming pollution per year. The rule assures millions of small businesses – from mom and pop operations, to farms, to mid-sized manufacturing concerns – that they will not be subject to these regulations.

Global Warming Health Effects

As the EPA has noted: … “(T)here are four main categories of health effects:

  • Increased frequency, duration, and intensity of heat waves. The associated health problems of heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke will be become increasingly common. The very old and very young are especially vulnerable, as well as those who are poor, socially isolated or who have chronic illnesses.
  • Increased air pollution. Increased temperatures cause increased production of ground level ozone, the main component of smog. This will increase rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases. It also makes breathing difficult for those who already have cardiac or respiratory ailments. Pollen production and allergies are also increasing as a result of increased CO2 concentrations.
  • Infectious diseases. Climate change is altering the range of disease-carrying organisms. West Nile virus carried by mosquitoes was not as prevalent in the United States until recently. More than 25,000 cases and more than 1,000 deaths have been recorded.
  • Extreme weather events. This includes severe storms, increases in both drought and flooding, and associated features such as erosion and wild fires. The commenter indicates that we simply do not have the public health capacity to respond to increasing numbers of large-scale disasters that are difficult to predict. “

EPA has also noted that “the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that global warming is already responsible for 150,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses each year … in the form of malnutrition, diarrhea, and vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever. So far they have occurred predominantly in poor and developing countries; ironically, the countries that contribute the least to global warming are the most susceptible. The health impact of climate change is also evident here in the developed world, … and will be increasingly felt if we do not take action.”

Recently, 136 national and state organizations and experts signed a letter to Congress stating that “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for protecting the public's health from climate change, and we urge you to fully support the EPA in fulfilling its responsibilities.


Health Standards for Smog (Ground-Level Ozone)

Goal: Tighten health standards for smog pollution to protective levels.

Health Benefits: Save as many as 12,000 lives per year, prevent thousands of heart attacks, tens of thousands of asthma attacks and emergency room visits, and hundreds of thousands of lost work-days.

Timeline: EPA is expected to finalize the new smog standards by July 2011.

Formal rule name: Reconsideration of the 2008 Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

Tens of millions of Americans live in areas where the air quality is frequently unhealthy to breathe due to smog. As a result, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board has unanimously recommended that the EPA tighten the standards in order to adequately protect public health.

To do so, the EPA must strengthen the national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for ground-level ozone (smog).  The current standard, set in 2008, limits the concentration of smog in air to 75 parts per billion. EPA has proposed to set a lower limit, in the range of 60 to 70 parts per billion.       

Smog above these levels causes significant health effects. As the EPA explains,

Scientific evidence indicates that adverse public health effects occur following exposure to ozone, particularly in children and adults with lung disease. Breathing air containing ozone can reduce lung function and inflame airways, which can increase respiratory symptoms and aggravate asthma or other lung diseases. Ozone exposure also has been associated with increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, medication use, doctor visits, and emergency department visits and hospital admissions for individuals with lung disease. Ozone exposure also increases the risk of premature death from heart or lung disease. Children are at increased risk from exposure to ozone because their lungs are still developing and they are more likely to be active outdoors, which increases their exposure.

According to the EPA, tightening the standard will prevent or avoid the following health impacts each year:

  • As many as 12,000 premature deaths;
  • 58,000 asthma attacks;
  • 21,000 hospital and emergency room visits;
  • 5,300 heart attacks;
  • Over 2.1 million missed school days; and
  • 420,000 lost work days.


Standards to Reduce Toxic Industrial Air Pollution

Goal: Establish standards to reduce toxic air pollution from thousands of industrial facilities.

Health Benefits: Save as many as 5,100 lives per year, prevent thousands of heart attacks and emergency room visits, avoid hundreds of thousands of lost work-days, and reduce the exposure of children to mercury and lead.

Timeline: EPA is expected to finalize the standards in April 2012.

Formal rule name: National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants for Major Sources: Industrial, Commercial, and Institutional Boilers and Process Heaters.

Nearly forty million Americans[i] live within just 3 miles of at least one industrial plant that emits toxic air pollution (like mercury, lead, and formaldehyde) without the required use of modern pollution control systems. Collectively, tens of thousands of tons of toxic air pollution are produced by fewer than 2,000 industrial boilers used at facilities such as refineries, chemical and manufacturing plants, and paper mills to generate steam or electricity by burning coal or other fuels. 

While most industrial plants have no controls designed specifically to reduce toxic emissions, some have installed appropriate pollution controls. The EPA is proposing to require all plants to meet the same standards being set by the cleaner operators.  According to the EPA, the standard will reduce:

“a number of toxic air pollutants, including mercury, other metals, and organic air toxics, which include polycyclic organic matter (POM) and dioxins” and “other pollutants including cadmium, dioxin, furans, formaldehyde and hydrochloric acid.”

These toxic pollutants include those that are known or suspected carcinogens. “Mercury, lead, dioxin, and furans can build up in the environment, causing serious environmental effects and harm to the food chain as well.”

EPA analysis shows that the new standards will create significant health benefits. In just the first year of implementation (2013) these standards will prevent:

  • as many as 5,100 premature deaths;
  • 1,300 cases of chronic bronchitis;
  • 3,000 nonfatal heart attacks;
  • 3,200 hospital and emergency room visits;
  • 3,000 cases of acute bronchitis;
  • 250,000 days when people miss work;
  • 33,000 cases of aggravated asthma; and
  • 1,500,000 acute respiratory symptoms.

Viewed purely through the lens of economic value, the new standards are a clear bargain: The value of these benefits is estimated at $17 billion to $41 billion in 2013 – outweighing the estimated costs of the controls by at least $14 billion and as much as $38 billion.


Reducing Global Warming From Cars and Light Trucks

Goal: Establish standards to reduce global warming pollution from cars and light trucks.

Consumer Benefits: Improving emissions performance by 6% per year over eight years would save US consumers approximately $101 billion in 2030, cut oil use by 44 billion gallons, and reduce heat-trapping carbon pollution by 465 million metric tons, according to a joint report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Timeline: Actual draft standards are expected in the fall of 2011; final standards are to be finalized in the summer of 2012.

Formal rule name:  2017 and Later Model Year Light Duty Vehicle GHG Emissions and CAFE Standards


Reducing Global Warming From Medium- and Heavy-Duty Trucks

Goal: Establish standards to reduce global warming pollution from medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

Status: In October 2010, the EPA and the Department of Transportation proposed the first-ever standards to cut carbon dioxide emissions and improve fuel efficiency in medium- and heavy-trucks. The standards will cover model years 2014 – 2018.

Timeline: Draft standards were proposed in October; final standards are expected to be finalized in July 2011.

Formal rule name: Heavy-duty Vehicles GHG Emissions Standards

EPA and NHTSA in October 2010 proposed new standards to reduce global warming pollution from medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

For tractor-trailer rigs, the standards would begin in 2014 model year and achieve up to a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and fuel consumption by 2017. For heavy-duty pickup trucks and vans, manufacturers must achieve fleet averages that correspond to reductions in global warming pollution of 12 percent from gasoline vehicles and 17 percent from diesel vehicles by 2018. For vehicles such as school buses and garbage trucks, the standards would start in 2014 and achieve up to a 10 percent reduction in fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by 2017.

The vehicles affected by this proposal consume an estimated 2.5 million barrels of oil per day, or one-fifth of the total transportation oil-use in the United States. The proposed standard would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 250 million metric tons and save 500 million barrels of oil over the lifetimes of the trucks sold during model years 2014 to 2018, according to EPA. While the new requirements would add $7.7 billion to the costs of heavy-duty trucks, the efficiency upgrades would save $49 billion over the life of the vehicles.


Reducing Global Warming From Power Plants

Goal: Establish standards to reduce global warming pollution from power plants.

Health Benefits: Reduce deaths and illnesses from heat waves, air pollution, infectious diseases and extreme weather events.

Timeline: Settling a lawsuit by states and environmental organizations, EPA has agreed to deadlines for issuing proposed standards for power plants’ carbon pollution in July 2011, and final standards in May 2012. (EPA will also issue standards for carbon pollution from oil refineries on a similar schedule.)

Formal rule name: Settlement Agreements to Address Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Electric Power Plants and Refineries.

Read more about why these critical public health protections are at risk.

last revised 12/2/2010

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