Smog Causing Early Deaths, Report Says

A recent review conducted by the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that short-term exposure to smog, or <"">ozone, is not only definitively linked to premature deaths, this information should also be taken into account when measuring the health benefits of reducing air pollution.  These findings contradict arguments made by some White House officials who argued that the connection between smog and premature death was not sufficiently established and that the number of saved lives should not be calculated in determining clean air benefits.

According to the 13-member panel, “The committee has concluded from its review of health-based evidence that short-term exposure to ambient ozone is likely to contribute to premature deaths.”  The panel—which examined short-term (24-hour) exposure to high ozone levels—also said that “studies have yielded strong evidence that short-term exposure to ozone can exacerbate lung conditions, causing illness and hospitalization and can potentially lead to death.”  Ozone exposure is a leading cause of respiratory illnesses and especially affects the elderly, those with respiratory problems, and children.  Ground-level ozone is formed from nitrogen oxide and organic compounds that result from burning fossil fuels and presents as yellow haze or smog that lingers in the air.

While premature deaths from ozone exposure is greater among individuals with lung and heart disease, the report said such deaths are not restricted to only those at a high risk of death within a couple of days.  Also, the scientists were unable to confirm if there is a threshold below which no fatalities can be assured from ozone exposure.  If such a threshold exists, it is below the ozone levels allowed for public health.  Environmentalists and health advocates have long argued that health studies and surveys show that smog exposure aggravates respiratory problems and results in thousands of fatalities each year; however, the EPA and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—which reviews regulations—have disagree about the smog level-death link.

Attorney Vicky Patton of the advocacy group Environmental Defense agrees that in a number of instances, the Academy’s report “could have important consequences” on such future disputes.  Patton also accused the OMB of attempting to minimize the link between pollution and premature deaths, which causes a lower calculation of health benefits from pollution reductions.  A tactic, Patton says, “Has been used by industry to try to attack health standards by minimizing the societal benefits.”

One example involves the EPA’s decision in March to toughen the ozone health standard that reduces allowable ozone concentrations in the air.  When the cost-benefit analysis was being prepared in connection with the rulemaking, the OMB argued there is “considerable uncertainty” in the association between ozone levels and deaths and has also objected to the EPA quantifying ozone-related mortality benefits in new emissions standards for lawn mowers and other small engines that release large amounts of ozone-forming pollution.  In response, the EPA removed “all references to quantified ozone benefits” in the proposed rule, according to an e-mail sent by EPA to the OMB.

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