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Ozone Slayer

The new ozone limits are based on sound science rather than corporate scare tactics. What a revolutionary concept.

Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed tighter limits on ground-level ozone pollution, which would bring the law in line with science that has been settled for years. If enacted, the new rules would conclude a sad chapter in the long-running story of “Big Business Runs the U.S. Government.”

Ground-level ozone comes mainly from vehicle tailpipes and power plant emissions. It passes easily into our lungs, where it can cause premature death from cardiovascular disease and major respiratory problems, such as asthma. EPA scientists have been urging their bosses to demand lower concentrations of ground-level ozone in city air for more than a decade. But politicians and top agency officials have ignored those calls, listening instead to industry warnings of dire financial consequences.

The result is a measurable increase in sickness in U.S. cities. A study released just this month in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that spikes in ground-level ozone in Atlanta led to more emergency room visits for upper respiratory infections and pneumonia, especially among infants. A 2010 study in New York City showed that high ozone levels increased the incidence of severe asthma attacks among children.

Using data from 2006, researchers have also found that, together, ozone and particulate matter contributed to 10 percent of the deaths in Los Angeles that year. While our politicians bowed down to big business, children died. That sounds harsh, but it’s undeniably true.

Illustrated by: Mike Licht

Ignoring the Scientists

How did that happen? In 1997, the EPA set the limit for ground-level ozone at 80 parts per billion, averaged over an eight-hour period. The Clean Air Act requires the agency to review its ozone standards every five years, so the rules should have been tightened in 2002. By then, medical evidence showed that the 80 ppb standard wasn’t enough to protect public health.

Rather than revise the rule, however, the Bush administration stalled. The American Lung Association sued the government in 2003, and the resulting settlement allowed the EPA to finalize the tighter rules six years after the original deadline.

After reviewing 1,700 studies on ozone’s health impacts for the 2008 revision, the EPA’s scientific advisory committee unanimously recommended a ground-level ozone limit between 60 and 70 parts per billion. That was an achievable limit—the European Commission limit was set at 61 ppb at the time. But Stephen Johnson, Bush’s last EPA administrator, rejected the scientists’ advice. He set the limit at 75 parts per billion without offering any explanation as to why he had ignored the scientific committee’s advice.

But it doesn’t take a Beltway insider to deduce Johnson’s thinking. The Clean Air Act does not allow the EPA to consider the cost of compliance when setting air standards. For this reason, Johnson couldn’t come out and explicitly say he had taken money into account with his weaker-than-recommended ozone limit. But everything about his decision points to that conclusion.

In 2008, many U.S. cities were already noncompliant with the 80 ppb limit, and businesses were complaining to the administration about how expensive stricter ozone rules would be. The EPA forecasted that complying with the watered-down 75 ppb limit would cost the economy $8.8 billion, before health savings were taken into account—that’s a major caveat, considering several studies suggest that air-quality regulations pay for themselves.

Ignoring the Public

Something similar happened when the EPA proposed new rules in 2011. The agency had finally accepted the advice of its scientific advisors and forwarded a proposal to limit ground-level ozone to between 60 and 70 parts per billion. Once again, business leaders revolted. The economy was already sluggish, they argued, and we couldn’t afford to restrict pollution in hundreds of noncompliant counties to healthy, medically defensible levels.

“[T]he EPA’s proposals would negate any progress on creating jobs in the private sector,” said John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, at the time.

The public disagreed. A bipartisan poll conducted by the American Lung Association showed that 75 percent of Americans favored stricter smog rules—smog is basically slang for ground-level ozone and particulate matter—and 65 percent rejected the idea that fighting air pollution would damage the economy.

So it was big money versus overwhelming public opinion. And…industry got its way. The administration abandoned the EPA’s rule—science and health be damned—and waited for the next legally mandated review period to come up in 2013. The president of the League of Conservation voters called it “the worst thing a Democratic president had ever done on our issues, period.”

Once again, health and environmental groups, including the American Lung Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes Earthwire), sued the administration.

A Happy Ending (Except for All those Premature Deaths)

The EPA’s scientific advisors made recommendations on ozone levels yet again in 2014. They suggested a maximum eight-hour average of between 60 and 70 parts per billion. Word leaked in October that President Obama would finally adopt the recommendation. Predictions that the rule “could be among the most costly and controversial in history” went flying. How do you think business groups reacted?

“You have to balance what you’re trying to achieve environmentally with what you’re trying to achieve in the economy,” said the vice president of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.

“New ozone standard would squelch growth,” screamed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The EPA, however, has an easy answer from the doomsday predictions of business leaders this time. As the New York Times reports today:

The agency estimates that the economic benefits of the rule—measured in avoided asthma attacks, heart attacks, missed school and work days and premature deaths—would significantly outweigh the costs. It calculates the benefits at $6.4 billion to $13 billion annually in 2025 for a standard of 70 parts per billion and $19 billion to $38 billion annually in 2025 for a standard of 65 parts per billion.

That's compared to a cost, the EPA estimates, of $3.9 billion to industry in 2025, using a standard of 70 ppb, or $15 billion at the stricter standard of 65 ppb.

And if you make the comparison in lives saved instead of dollars lost, it's no contest.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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