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Smog Levels to Remain Higher than Scientists Suggest Safe for Public Health

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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houston smogThe Obama administration has withdrawn regulations that would have prevented at least 1,500 deaths per year from unhealthy levels of smog in the air. Citing “regulatory uncertainty and regulatory burden” (read: jobs), the President stated on September 2 that he will not update a 2008 standard until 2013 (read: after the next presidential election, if ever).

“I want to be clear: my commitment and the commitment of my administration to protecting public health and the environment is unwavering,” the President said of his decision, in a prepared statement. Yet, the decision seems to ignore the state of the science on smog and protecting public health.

As it stands, smog—or ground-level ozone, as it is known to science—contributes to ailments ranging from asthma to heart attacks, as well as an estimated $500 million in crop damage every year. More than half of all Americans are currently exposed to unhealthy levels, largely due to emissions from two things: coal-fired power plants, and cars and trucks.

Back in 2008, in updating smog standards under the Clean Air Act, the Bush administration ignored its scientific advisory panel‘s advice to lower those standards to between 60 and 70 parts-per-billion (ppb). Instead, new standards dropped to 75 ppb from 84 ppb. And that’s now where they will stay for the time being. When the Obama administration took over, it promised to reconsider the 75 ppb standard. In a July 13 letter to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson wrote that “the 2008 standards were not legally defensible given the scientific evidence.” As in, the Clean Air Act requires the government to take its scientists advice on effective levels of air pollution to protect public health.

That is exactly what the American Lung Association charged in a lawsuit it dropped in 2009 that now will be revived, according to CEO Charles Connor. That suit charged that the 75 ppb standard set by the Bush administration did not uphold the scientific standards required by the Clean Air Act. “For two years, the administration dragged its feet, delaying its decision, unnecessarily putting lives at risk,” Connor said in a statement announcing the group’s determination to renew the legal fight. “Its final decision not to enact a more protective ozone health standard is jeopardizing the health of millions of Americans, which is inexcusable.”

Of course, lowering the standard further would have meant hundreds of new areas would have too much smog and thereby theoretically be ineligible for any federal money (highways, health care, etc.) until they brought those pollution levels down.

For its part, the EPA estimated that lowering the smog standards would cost as much as $90 billion per year for electric companies and car manufacturers, though the new rules would also avoid health costs of as much as $100 billion per year. “We will revisit the ozone standard,” promised Jackson, in her statement on the Obama decision. But that, of course, depends on whether this administration remains in power in 2013.

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. eddiequest 4:00 pm 09/2/2011

    Bush, (the dummy) made me a democrat. Obama made me an independent. AG is right. Our government is in a terrible mess. I highly doubt our founding fathers would be happy with the way things are going now.

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  2. 2. da bahstid 6:11 pm 09/2/2011

    Can’t have new regulations necessitating the hiring of teams of highly qualified engineers/scientists etc to improve health in America lowering long-term healthcare costs…corporate execs need to buy their boats.

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  3. 3. phx11 7:09 pm 09/2/2011

    re: coal plants, Congressional Research Service says “Fuel combustion by electric utilities accounted for 13% of NOx emissions nationally in 2009, and less than 1% of VOC and CO emissions. Thus, other sources account for most of the emissions”

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  4. 4. priddseren 12:39 am 09/3/2011

    Aside from the ridiculous claim that 1500 extra deaths a year can be attributed unquestionably to smog by something other than crystal balls identifying the exact numbee of deaths we should have and foolish statistical math, I think this is a good move. Each state has its own regulations and we have no need or reason to pay for duplicate and less effective(or incompetent) efforts at the federal level. Of course state politicians are just as incompetent as the federal ones but at least at the state level, the people have more control over what happens. Plus if you don’t like the environmental rules of your state, you are free to move to another, a choice unavailable to us when the Federal government goes beyond its constutional limits and starts attempting to control everything across the country.

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  5. 5. Trafalgar 1:06 am 09/3/2011

    Good point, priddseren! If each state makes their own environmental laws, then when you (a company) don’t like the environmental laws of your state, you can feel free to put your factories in another state with looser laws. Or another country entirely.

    Mmm, crystal balls, eh?

    Personally, I’ve lost all faith in Obama, and in the ability of the President to get anything done at all when Congress is spending all their time screaming at each other and nobody will do anything even remotely sane.

    What the world needs is a God-Emperor.

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  6. 6. JamesDavis 8:23 am 09/3/2011

    Of course, “priddseren”, if you don’t like all the pollution your state is producing, you can pack your extra pair of shirt and pants, throw them in your 60s VW van and move to another state, and after that state becomes too polluted, you can always move to another state, if you can afford to buy the gas by then. Welcome to “The Hotel California” pretty pretty boy. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

    Bush (the stupid) made me ashamed and afraid to be an American, and the GOP and Tea Party makes me want to become a Serial Killer. (R)Speaker Crybaby Bonehead said that this president will get nothing until his rating is lower than Bush’s (the war monger) before he left office. Can anyone’s rating ever get lower than that? President Obama needs to invoke the 14th Amendment and completely bypass the republicans. If he does not, we will never get anything done. …Down with the Republicans…again!…

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  7. 7. Chryses 4:31 pm 09/3/2011

    “… When the Obama administration took over, it promised to reconsider the 75 ppb standard …”

    The Obama administration did reconsider the 75 ppb standard; the “problem” seems to be that it didn’t make the decision that some people wanted it to make. To reconsider a previous decision does not mean “to reverse the decision”. It means “to consider again”.

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  8. 8. outsidethebox 11:43 pm 09/4/2011

    Right now were forcing 3 to 4 million people out of the work force every year against their will. I wonder how many early deaths that causes. I also wonder how many more will not be employed because of increasing regulations like this.

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  10. 10. mdrutl 9:48 am 09/8/2011

    This was a poor article, and I could have done without the editorializing (read: it was mostly wrong). The EPA is required by law to revisit ozone standards every 5 years. That would be 2013. Hmmmm, so Obama didn’t just put off the decision until after the election, “if ever.”

    Science suggests we need tighter standards. I agree, but the question for me is not ‘Why isn’t Obama lowering the threshold,’ but ‘Why did he revisit the standard in the first place?’ It was a political stunt. He was throwing a bone to his environmental supporters. They spent 2.5 years reviewing the old standard (and the EPA can’t use new scientific information in review of an old standard, only the science available at the time the standard was produced). The standard will be revisited in another year and a half anyway, with all the new science that has come out in the last five years. His political stunt backfired. That is all.

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  11. 11. tsmith 3:11 pm 09/8/2011

    What, only 1500 people? Down with more regulations, I say!

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