May 28, 2008
Federal standards for things like product safety and public welfare are supposed to make enforcement more manageable and consistent being fair to industry while protecting consumers. But increasingly, states are complaining that federal standards just aren't strong enough.

Just last week, the California Air Resources Board said it research had demonstrated that long-term exposure to fine-particle pollution, another common form of air pollution, poses a greater health threat than previously estimated.

In the latest conflict, 14 states and the District of Columbia have filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, claiming the agency's revised, ground-level ozone are weak and inadequate to protect the public health and welfare.

In a lawsuit filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the states contend that EPA violated the federal Clean Air Act and disregarded advice from its own scientific advisory committee in setting its revised National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone.

"It is simply unacceptable for EPA to ignore its own science advisory committee and set the new ozone standard at a level that will make breathing more difficult for children, seniors, people who work outdoors and those who already suffer from chronic lung disease," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "It is absolutely vital that the EPA follow the science on this issue and adopt a standard that protects public health."

A main ingredient of "smog," ground-level ozone is an air pollutant that is harmful to breathe and damages trees, crops, animals, wildlife and visibility. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to establish primary and secondary standards for air pollutants such as ozone, and to review and update those standards every five years.

The "primary" standard defines the upper limit of ozone concentrations that can be in the atmosphere before causing public health problems such as asthma attacks and chronic lung disease. The "secondary" standard defines the upper limit of ozone concentrations that can be in the atmosphere before damaging public welfare by diminishing crop productivity and harming plants, animals, wildlife and climate.

Ozone-related adverse health effects include changes in lung function, increased respiratory symptoms and aggravation of existing lung and heart disease.

Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the effects of ozone, as are active individuals such as joggers. Ozone also has harmful effects on vegetation including increased susceptibility to disease, which can kill trees and diminish crops.

"The scientific evidence is clear and well-established: reducing ozone levels will not only help protect our environment and preserve our natural resources, it will help save lives. It is time for the federal government to comply with the Clean Air Act and work with the states to implement ground-level ozone standards that actually protect public health and welfare," said New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Lisa P. Jackson, who also chairs the Ozone Transport Commission, an organization of 12 northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, plus the District of Columbia.

The participating states or state agencies include California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Rhode Island.

The coalition is asking the Court to order EPA to adopt new standards that comply with the Clean Air Act by protecting public health and welfare.

California findings

According to the California report, 14,000 to 24,000 premature deaths a year are estimated to be associated with exposures to PM2.5, a mix of microscopic particles less than 2.5 microns in size. A majority of these deaths occur in highly populated areas around the state, including the South Coast, San Joaquin Valley and San Francisco Bay air basins.

"Particle pollution is a silent killer," said ARB Chairman Mary D. Nichols. "We must work even harder to cut these life-shortening emissions by further addressing pollution sources head-on."

Particulate matter (PM) is a complex blend of substances ranging from dry solid fragments, solid-core fragments with liquid coatings, and small droplets of liquid. These particles vary in shape, size and chemical composition, and may include metals, soot, soil and dust.

At the request of the board in 2006, ARB researchers carefully reviewed all scientific studies on the subject and consulted with health scientists. While exposures to particulate matter have long been known as a serious health threat, new information suggests that the pollutant is even more toxic than previously thought.

Hospitalizations, emergency room visits and doctor visits for respiratory illnesses or heart disease have been associated with exposure to particulate matter. Other studies suggest that exposure may influence asthma symptoms and acute and chronic bronchitis.

Children, the elderly and people with pre-existing chronic disease are most at risk of experiencing adverse health effects. Even small increases in exposures may increase health risks.

Major contributors include trucks, passenger cars, off-road equipment, electric power generation and industrial processes, residential wood burning, and forest and agricultural burning. All combustion processes generally produce fine particulate matter.