- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) —The Environmental Protection Agency is tightening the air quality health standard for smog, but not by as much as many medical experts believe is needed to protect the elderly and young children. 1:50 p.m.

The agency, however, unexpectedly postponed a scheduled announcement on the issue today and rescheduled it for 6 p.m. “There’s a lot of work on the documents to be done,” said EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar.

Officials and lobbyists said the EPA had told them earlier today that it was ready to announce a tightening of the federal ozone, or smog, standard to 75 parts per billion. That’s a concentration that would still be less stringent than what health experts have said is needed to protect children and the elderly and prevent hundreds of premature deaths.

Business groups have argued in meetings with the EPA and White House officials that the current 80 parts per billion smog standard should not be changed.

A tougher smog rule would force many counties to find more ways to reduce air pollution.

About 85 of more than 700 counties nationwide currently exceed the federal health standard for smog during at least some days of the year. If the standard is lowered to 75 parts per billion, that number of counties in noncompliance is expected to roughly quadruple, according to the latest EPA estimates.

The EPA by law is not supposed to consider economic cost in establishing the federal health standard for air quality. The agency has estimated new pollution control efforts to comply with a 75 parts per billion standard would cost as much as $8.8 billion a year, although it acknowledged that does not take into account reductions in health care costs that could be even greater.

Last year, the EPA said it was considering lowering the standard from 80 parts per billion of ozone per unit of air to between 70 and 75 parts per billion. Officials advised of the EPA’s plans said the agency’s administrator, Stephen Johnson, has decided on the upper end of that range.

In recent weeks some of the most powerful industry groups in Washington have waged an intense lobbying campaign at the White House, urging the administration to keep the current standard despite warnings from most health experts that it does not adequately protect public health.

Electric utilities, the oil and chemical industries, and manufacturing groups argued that lowering the standard would require states and local officials to impose new pollution controls, harming economic growth, when the science has yet to determine the health benefits conclusively. The 80 parts per billion standard was enacted by the EPA in 1997, but its implementation was delayed for several years because of unsuccessful court challenges by industry groups.

An independent EPA advisory group of scientists last year told the EPA that an ozone standard of 60 to 70 parts per billion is needed to provide an adequate margin of protection to millions of people susceptible to respiratory problems. A similar conclusion was reached by a second advisory board on children’s health.

In December, 111 health scientists, in a letter to Johnson, also urged the EPA to adopt the science panels’ findings.

“Most studies show a steady reduction in the public health burden as the standard is tightened,” said Jonathan Levy of the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis.

The EPA has said, based on various studies, cutting smog from 80 to 75 parts per billion would prevent between 900 and 1,100 premature deaths a year, 1,400 fewer nonfatal heart attacks and 5,600 fewer hospital or emergency room visits. A separate study suggests that tightening the standard to 70 parts per billion could avoid as many s 3,800 premature deaths nationwide.

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