A statement from the American Lung Association via Healio
Q&A: Despite EPA’s delay, ‘the clock is ticking’ on finalizing ozone standards
- The EPA announced that it will be conducting a new review of ozone standards, delaying action until as late as 2025.
- The American Lung Association is “deeply disappointed” in this decision.
On Aug. 21, the EPA publicized that it will be conducting a new review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone, meaning the current outdated national limit on this pollution may be in place until as late as December 2025.
This announcement caused both the American Lung Association and the American Thoracic Society to publicly express their disappointment in the EPA’s decision.
As Healio previously reported, the 2023 State of the Air report found that the number of people exposed to ozone pollution went down by 19.3 million people; however, with the EPA’s recent announcement, lung experts wonder how this statistic will be impacted.
Healio spoke with Laura Kate Bender, national assistant vice president of healthy air at the American Lung Association, to learn more about ozone pollution, how the EPA’s delay will backtrack recent progress and the journey to achieving environmental justice.
Healio: What are some of the dangers associated with ozone pollution? What factors make individuals more susceptible to these dangers?
Bender: Ozone can harm anybody’s health at high levels, but many people are particularly at risk. This includes people who have lung disease such as asthma, people who are pregnant, children or older adults, people with other underlying conditions and people who spend a lot of time outdoors working or exercising.
Additionally, the effects of ozone pollution are not distributed equally. Communities of color tend to have polluting sources located nearby more often. We know according to the Lung Association’s own State of the Air report that people of color are more likely to breathe polluted air than white people.
Both short- and long-term exposure can cause health harm. In the immediate term, high levels of ozone can cause shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. If an individual has asthma, it can give them an asthma attack. It can also send people, particularly those with lung disease, to the hospital. Ozone exposure is also bad for you over the long term. Long-term exposure is linked to a whole host of health impacts including premature death, increased respiratory harm, lower birth weight and decreased lung function in newborns, an increased risk for metabolic disorders and a link with cardiovascular health.
There are a lot of commonalities between the harms of particle pollution and ozone pollution. In both cases, they can cause immediate harm, particularly to breathing, and long-term harm if you’re exposed day after day.
Healio: What conditions make ozone pollution levels stronger/more harmful? What are some ways individuals can protect themselves when faced with these conditions?
Bender: Ozone isn’t emitted directly from sources of air pollution. It’s formed when different emissions react in the atmosphere. For example, emissions from gas/diesel vehicles, power plants, industry and a whole host of sources mix in the presence of heat and sunlight and can react to form ozone. That means a couple of things. One, it means that ozone can show up a long way downwind from where the original pollutants were emitted. Two, it means that on warmer days, we’re more likely to see unhealthy levels of ozone pollution because those reactions take place in the presence of heat. This also means that climate change in many places has been and is projected to continue to drive increasing ozone levels because again, more heat tends to mean more ozone.
On days with unhealthy levels of ozone, which individuals can check by going to airnow.gov for their air quality forecast, people should take steps to protect themselves. The level of the air quality alert determines how bad ozone is for the day. As a person with asthma, I tend to check and take this pretty seriously. On an orange alert day — a day with elevated levels of ozone — I would not make plans to go for a run outdoors. I would spend that time indoors especially because exercising increases the rate at which you’re inhaling air.
Healio: How will the delay of the EPA’s standard for ozone pollution backtrack recent progress that has been made in reducing this type of pollution?
Bender: The American Lung Association is deeply disappointed by the delay the EPA recently announced. The EPA sets national limits on ozone pollution — the National Ambient Air Quality Standards — and the Clean Air Act, the law that governs those standards, requires that they be based on health science. They need to be based on what the science shows is safe to breathe. The science has shown for years that the current ozone standard is not safe to breathe; it allows levels of pollution that are unhealthy and can cause health harms. So, the fact that the EPA announced that rather than moving forward with updating the standard through their reconsideration process, they’re essentially going back to square one is a huge disappointment because it means potentially years of delay in getting a stronger standard that the science shows is needed.
Healio: How would stronger ozone standards impact public health?
Bender: The Clean Air Act and the ozone standards under it have a long track record of success. The reason that they work so well is because the law requires the EPA to set standards based on what the science says is healthy, not how much it’s going to cost to clean up. Once the EPA sets the standards, it implements them working with states and other entities across the country. They figure out where there is too much ozone based on measurements and modeling and then what communities are going to do to clean up that ozone. This leads to places taking concrete steps to reduce emissions that form ozone to help those communities have air that’s safe to breathe and attains the standards.
This important and deliberate process takes a long time, so the sooner the EPA sets more protective ozone standards in keeping with what the science shows is necessary, the sooner those protections can end up resulting in emissions reductions that will help people in places where there are unhealthy levels. It’s a long process and the EPA setting the standard is just the first step.
The other thing that we want to emphasize about the EPA’s recent announcement is that the Clean Air Act has requirements for how often it has to do this. The law actually requires that the EPA review the ozone standards and standards for similar pollutants every 5 years. That’s important because the science is always changing. Time and research show that pollutants such as ozone are more dangerous than we thought previously in more ways than we thought previously. The clock is ticking because the EPA has a legal obligation to finish its review of the ozone standards by Dec. 31, 2025. This new process that they announced, where they basically have to go back to square one and do a full review of the standards rather than moving forward with something more protective now, has to be done under the law by the end of 2025.
Healio: Why are stronger national air standards important for achieving environmental justice?
Bender: Getting stronger ozone standards across the finish line isn’t just about public health, it’s also about environmental justice and health equity because ensuring that these tighter standards are in place and that they lead to actual cleanup is critical for the communities that have been waiting for decades to have polluting sources near them reduce their emissions.
In pushing the EPA to propose, strengthen and finalize a suite of things, environmental justice has been a recurring theme. With these standards, the administration has a huge opportunity to promote environmental justice and ensure cleanup in the communities that have been dealing with air pollution for far too long. This is a real opportunity to promote environmental justice and meet the administration’s goals in terms of ensuring that communities have equitable access to healthy air, but if not, then it perpetuates the injustices that have been in place for too long already.
Healio: As an American Lung Association representative, what is your message to the EPA regarding this delay and the lack of finalization for other critical regulations?
Bender: With regard to the ozone standard, we are profoundly disappointed. The ozone standards are critical, they’re outdated and the fact that communities now have to wait longer for lifesaving protections from ozone pollution is simply unacceptable.
The Lung Association will continue to push and to make sure that stronger ozone standards get across the finish line as fast as possible. We will also work to make sure that these standards are at the levels that the science shows are needed, which is a range of 55 parts per billion to 60 parts per billion — significantly stronger than the current standards.
With regard to the other rules, there are a lot of things that the EPA has proposed. We’ve been calling for a suite of clean air protections that are urgently needed, including protections from methane from the oil and gas industry, protections that make our cars and trucks less polluting, and measures to limit air toxics and carbon pollution from power plants. The administration had proposed all these standards, and now they need to get them across the finish line. This is really an inflection point for the administration’s goals of improving health equity, reducing air pollution and addressing climate change. They have a suite of regulations that they need to finalize, and they need to make them as strong and as health-protective as possible. Urgently finalizing these proposals and strengthening them so that they maximize the protection for public health is critical; it’s more important now than ever.
Most immediately, the EPA is also considering updating the national limits on particle pollution. Just like with ozone, the same requirements are in place for the national limits on particle pollution: They need to be reviewed every 5 years and based on health. The good news is the EPA has proposed tighter limits on particles. The bad news is those limits did not go far enough. The Lung Association is urgently calling on the administration to finalize updated particle pollution standards this fall at the levels that the science shows are safe to breathe, which is 8 µg/m3 annually and 25 µg/m3 for the daily standard.
Even though generally speaking, the air is much cleaner than it used to be, not every community has experienced that cleanup and climate change is driving increased air pollution. The need to ratchet down on these standards further is urgent so more protections can come into place.
- EPA initiates new review of the ozone national ambient air quality standards to reflect the latest science. https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-initiates-new-review-ozone-national-ambient-air-quality-standards-reflect-latest. Published Aug. 21, 2023. Accessed Aug. 24, 2023.
- Lung Association deeply disappointed with EPA’s failure to update ozone pollution standard; Calls on EPA to follow the science and the Clean Air Act to protect vulnerable populations. https://www.lung.org/media/press-releases/fy24-ozonestandards-statement. Published Aug. 21, 2023. Accessed Aug. 22, 2023.
- Lung disease physicians and researchers disappointed by Environmental Protection Agency’s slow-motion action to curb smog ozone air pollution. https://www.thoracic.org/about/newsroom/press-releases/ats-statement-epa-and-ozone-2023.php. Published Aug. 22, 2023. Accessed Aug. 23, 2023.