ADVERTISEMENT
Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

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

|

houston smogThe Obama administration has withdrawn regulations that would have prevented at least 1,500 deaths per year from unhealthy levels of smog in the air.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.

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

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

Back to School Sale!

One year just $19.99

Order now >

X

Email this Article

X