On July 11, just days before a record heat wave steamrolled through Washington, D.C., triggering "Code Orange" and "Code Red" smog alerts, the White House received a belated yet timely delivery from the EPA: a proposed new ozone standard.
By revising national air quality standards for the main ingredient of smog to between 60 and 70 parts per billion -- from an 84 parts per billion standard set in 1997 -- the EPA estimates that up to 12,000 American lives could be saved and 58,000 asthma attacks avoided each year.
However, the agency announced on Tuesday that it no longer intends to meet the agreed-upon July 29 deadline for approval of the life-saving measure. EPA press secretary Brendan Gilfillan would not specify when a final decision would be reached, only that the agency anticipates doing so "shortly" and would "use the long-standing flexibility in the Clean Air Act to consider costs, jobs and the economy."
This fourth postponement by the Obama administration on the ozone decision comes as little surprise to experts, in large part because of persistent industry and political pressures. Industry experts argue that a tighter standard is not in the best interest of a country tight on cash. Further, as Politico reported, many of the resulting non-compliant counties would fall within swing states key to Obama's reelection campaign.
"This action is discretionary -- no law or court is compelling action -- and would clearly harm job creation and economic growth, all at a time when air quality continues to improve under the existing standards," American Petroleum Institute (API) President and CEO Jack Gerard said in a statement.
"It’s ridiculous. This has been going on for over 11 years," said Elizabeth Martin Perera, a public health expert with the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists Climate and Energy Program. "Industry has been trying to do everything they can to delay the standard."
Perera, like Gerard, noted that substantial cuts to emissions have been achieved since the Clean Air Act came around in 1970. "But climate change is steadily eating away at those gains," she added.
Nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds produced primarily by automobiles, power plants and factories will react together in the presence of heat and sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, or smog. The toxic concoction can wreck havoc on the lungs and heart.
"Ozone is heavily dependent on temperatures," said Perera, who recently co-authored a study looking at the link. "For every 1 degree of warming, there's a 1.2 parts per billion increase in ozone."
In 2008, the Bush administration attempted to set the standard at 75 parts per billion, ignoring recommendations of a Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee that had unanimously advised a limit between 60 and 70 parts per billion. The Obama administration decided to reconsider in 2009, recognizing that the Bush-era figure would not hold up in court: The Clean Air Act requires that any standard-setting be based solely on science.
Now, as the administration continues to contemplate its decision, additional evidence reveals smog’s complicated and harmful effects.
Perera's study, published in June, found that climate change-induced ozone increases could result in an array of health-related costs by 2020, including 2.8 million additional serious respiratory illnesses and nearly a million additional missed school days, all amounting to about $5.4 billion in costs.
A separate study published last week found that healthy young adults experienced breathing troubles even at 60 parts per billion of ozone.
"These are the toughest among us," said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association. Nolen was one of a handful of public health officials who presented recommendations at the White House on Monday. "What does this suggest for children with asthma, or older adults?"
The World Health Organization recommends a standard of 50 parts per billion.
Even changes to within the proposed range could bring "tangible benefits to public health," said Jonathan Levy, an air pollution expert at the Boston University School of Public Health.
Levy noted that the difference between a limit of 75 and 65 parts per billion would be roughly 2,200 fewer heart attacks and 8,400 fewer hospital and emergency room visits per year by 2020. "This is because of the ozone benefits and because many of the control strategies for ozone would also lower levels of fine particulate matter, which would also have health benefits," he said.
Still, industry experts point to the potentially high economic costs, including lost jobs. "The proposed new regulations would put nearly every county in the country into non-compliance, which means that no new manufacturing facilities, bridges, oil and gas wells could be built," Carlton Carroll, spokesman for the API said in an email.
The EPA and other environmental advocates maintain that the benefits would far outweigh the costs. Ozone is also not the only clean air issue on the EPA's radar. New standards for carbon and mercury emissions are pending, and a new cross-state air pollution rule was set last week to address the problem that many states affected by pollution "do not have the power to regulate emissions from other states," Charlotte Collins, vice president of policy and programs at the Allergy Foundation of America, said in an email.
"We have 40 years of experience to know that the Clean Air Act works," said Nolen. "The same arguments come up every time because these impacts affect a lot of different places and different people. But there is evidence to support the fact that we can have clean air and a strong economy, too."