By Gina McCoy

In October 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), charged with implementing the Clean Air Act, ran out of time for revising its ozone standard. A federal court found the 1997 standard — maintained against the unanimous advice of its Scientific Advisory Ozone Review Panel in a 2008 review — did not adequately protect human health.

The court ordered the EPA to revise the standard by Oct. 1, 2015. On Oct. 26, the EPA lowered the ozone standard from .075 parts per million (ppm) to .070 ppm — the maximum recommended in 2008 by its panel.

The Clean Air Act requires periodic review of standards for pollutants, to maintain “requisite” standards that are neither more nor less stringent than necessary to protect public health and welfare. In other words, the EPA is not allowed to over-regulate pollutants. Periodic reviews allow new information to refine the understanding of the standards needed to protect public health.

Ozone in the upper atmosphere protects the planet from harmful ultra-violet radiation.  However, ground-level ozone is regulated because it decreases lung function and is associated with asthma attacks, respiratory infections and increased cardiopulmonary and respiratory death rates; chronic exposure can cause permanent lung damage.  Determining how much to allow is difficult, because no level has been found that prevents harmful effects, particularly to vulnerable individuals. The more ozone we breathe, the worse the effects become. Studies have shown that the higher the ozone level, the greater the number of hospital admissions for respiratory problems; deaths rates rise; sales of asthma medications spike. The EPA estimated that “tens to thousands” of  ozone-related deaths occur each year at the standard they took so long to revise.

Ozone pollution results when sunshine interacts with pollutants produced by internal combustion engines and power plants. In a word: smog. Ozone formation increases with temperature, so high concentrations are linked to hot, sunny weather. Although concentrations are greatest in urban areas, ozone pollution can be detected in rural areas 250 miles downwind of industrial zones

What’s allowable?

So, the EPA had the unenviable task of identifying how much harm is allowable — and to whom. Children and the elderly — more than a third of the population — are hardest-hit by ozone pollution. Nationwide monitoring indicates that approximately 99 million Americans live in areas where ozone levels exceed the old standard of 0.075 ppm.

The Pacific Northwest is thought to be relatively safe from ozone pollution. However, in its discussion of the new standards, the EPA noted that “climate change is projected to dramatically increase the areas burned by wildfires across most of the contiguous United States, especially in the West.” Smoke from these fires is rich in the pollutants that produce ozone.

Spot-checking air quality monitoring stations in the state recently, I saw hourly ozone concentrations spiking to over 0.10 ppm (although the EPA standard is averaged over 8-hour periods). Have you noticed, during this smoke-filled summer, a burning sensation in your lungs that seems to peak in the heat of the day? Have you felt the need to keep children indoors? We are feeling a little of the pain suffered by those far away 99 million other Americans.

Nevertheless, Congress stepped in earlier this year to undo the EPA’s grudging tightening of the standards. In July, the “Ozone Standards Implementation Act of 2017” became law, bringing back the .075 ppm standard, changing the mandated review cycle from five to 10 years, and prohibiting the EPA from conducting another review of ozone standards until 2025.

By delaying review of the standard, Congress was doubling down on protecting the fossil fuel industry against future regulation. In March, the House of Representatives approved The “EPA’s Science Advisory Board Reform Act,” requiring “balance” between scientific and technical points of view and allowing individuals with financial conflicts of interest to serve. As envisioned by the acts’ proponents, after passage in the Senate, industry representatives will dictate the science and advice on setting standards. Problem solved.

And where do our elected representatives stand on keeping our air breathable? All four Republicans in the Washington delegation — Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, Dave Reichert and Jaime Herrera-Beutler — voted in favor of “reforming” the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, while all six Democrats voted against it. At the urging of the American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups, Newhouse, McMorris-Rodgers and Herrera-Beutler also voted to reinstitute the outdated and lethal ozone standards. Perhaps they have some special air to breathe. To his credit, Reichert voted no, alongside the Democratic representatives.

Meanwhile, background ozone levels steadily rise.

Gina McCoy lives in Winthrop.