By this Thursday, President Obama has to decide whether to set safe health standards for smog pollution that will safeguard all Americans--or whether he will settle for a weaker, unprotective standard, one that will leave children, the elderly and asthmatics especially vulnerable. The president's decision will determine whether he leaves behind a positive and fully protective legacy on health standards safeguarding Americans against unsafe smog levels. Whatever he decides on is likely to remain the standard for many years to come, raising the stakes even further
Widespread reports indicate EPA plans to adopt the worst of the options it proposed for updated smog (ground-level ozone) health standards, 70 parts per billion (ppb). (The agency took comments on a proposed range of 65-70 ppb.) EPA already showed an unwillingness to provide full protection when it decided not even to take comment on a smog standard of 60-64 ppb, even though that was part of the range its independent science advisors have unanimously and consistently recommended since 2006. Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson did propose the more protective 60-64 ppb range in 2011 when she put forward the full range from 60-70 ppb. But then EPA unaccountably dropped those greater protections from the agency's 2014 proposal, proposing just 65-70.
It's easy to get lost in the numbers, but the effect is easy to understand. The higher the number, the more smog Americans will have to continue to breathe.
As the charts below show in stark relief, any decision by the Obama administration to settle for EPA's worst health option, 70 ppb, would result in thousands more preventable deaths, and hundreds of thousands more avoidable asthma attacks every year, versus setting the health standard at the more protective 65 or even 67 ppb.
There are hopeful reports that some in the White House want to do better than EPA's worst proposal, instead setting a safer health standard at 67 or 68 ppb. The question is whether President Obama will side with these public health proponents who want to do better, or an EPA that appears to be shying away from a fully protective standard. The president has the opportunity this week to make up for the single worst health and environmental decision of his first term, when he personally blocked safe health standards for smog pollution in 2011. The New York Times editorial board rightly called it "A Bad Call on Ozone" and observed "there is still no excuse for compromising on public health and allowing politics to trump science."
From EPA's own materials (Table ES-7), here is a sample of harmful public health consequences that President Obama can make sure will be avoided every year by adopting safer health standards of 65 or 67 ppb and rejecting the unprotective 70 level.
The Clean Air Act has worked--Los Angeles no longer appears as a brown cloud in pictures taken from space, for example--but the law is only as good as its continuing implementation and enforcement. The President should tell EPA that fewer deaths and fewer asthma attacks are better public policy. President Obama should do better than EPA's worst. His decision will affect Americans' health for years to come.