Stronger ozone, soot regs would save 9,000+ lives — study

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 11, 2016

U.S. EPA could head off thousands of deaths and illnesses each year by further tightening air quality standards for ground-level ozone and fine particulates, a public health advocacy group said in an analysis released today.

In all, more than 9,300 lives would likely be saved by reducing the eight-hour benchmark for ozone to 60 parts per billion and the annual standard for fine particulates — often described as soot — to 11 micrograms per cubic meter, according to the report by the American Thoracic Society. That estimate is close to the number of deaths caused by drunken driving accidents in recent years.

Stricter pollution curbs would lower the annual number of heart attacks, emergency room visits and other “serious health events” by 22,400, the report added, and similarly cut “adverse impact days” — when breathing problems may keep people from going to work and school or otherwise leave them physically inactive — by 19.3 million.

The study, whose corollary is that many people are needlessly dying or getting sick, draws on air quality data from 2011 to 2013; the findings are not affected by last year’s tightening of the ozone standard.

The report is a first for the thoracic society, a New York City-based organization that claims a membership of more than 15,000 doctors and other health care professionals. The group compiled the analysis with New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management.

The two organizations also launched a website allowing users to search by ZIP code to see whether their surrounding area meets current EPA standards and see the potential local impact of reducing standards to the thoracic society’s recommendations.

“As an organization of health care providers and researchers, we know firsthand the toll air pollution takes on people’s health, particularly the young and elderly,” Dr. David Gozal, the society’s president, said in a news release. “The report begins to quantify that toll and provides information that, we believe, should inform the setting of national air pollution standards.”

Short of a court-ordered decree, however, changes to current standards are years away, at best. EPA’s latest review of the thresholds for fine particulates, linked to a variety of heart and lung ailments, isn’t set to conclude until 2021. The next review of ground-level ozone standards, although not yet scheduled, will likely also spill into the next decade.

Ozone, an invisible gas that irritates lung passageways, can help trigger asthma attacks and make it harder for people with emphysema to breathe. It is formed by the reaction of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides in sunlight.

The previous standard, set in 2008, had been 75 parts per billion. EPA is currently battling lawsuits by both industry groups arguing that the standard should have been left unchanged and environmental organizations that say it should have been cut to 60 ppb. In a forceful defense filed last month with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the agency’s lawyers argued that Administrator Gina McCarthy’s judgment was “sound” in setting the standard neither higher nor lower than necessary (Greenwire, Aug. 1).

But in a friend-of-the-court brief submitted this spring on behalf of the environmental groups challenging the new standard as too weak, the thoracic society and the American Lung Association said that EPA failed to fully account for ozone’s impact on children and other vulnerable populations and that the latest science shows damaging health effects below the 70 ppb level.

The report released today “underscores the need for strong clean air protections, especially for the most vulnerable,” Harold Wimmer, the lung association’s president and CEO, said in a separate release. Even though the updated ozone standard is not as strict as the group recommended, Wimmer called for its full implementation and enforcement. He also urged EPA to strengthen limits on fine particulates.