April 22, 2008 -- A National Academy of sciences panel concluded Tuesday that short-term exposure to ozone pollution is directly linked to poor health in humans, batting down White House contentions that the link between pollution and early death was unclear.
Ozone is the main component of smog and is released to the environment mostly from cars, trucks, machine engines, and factories.
Environmental agencies and health groups have long recognized the link between breathing smog pollution and declining human health. But National Academies experts Tuesday waded into a debate, largely within the Bush administration, about whether the connection applies beyond the elderly and people with respiratory disease.
"Based on a review of recent research, the committee found that deaths related to ozone exposure are more likely among individuals with pre-existing diseases and other factors that could increase their susceptibility. However, premature deaths are not limited to people who are already within a few days of dying," a statement from the panel said.
Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered acceptable ozone levels for U.S. cities. The agency lowered its standard to 0.075 parts per million (ppm). That was despite an earlier recommendation by the agency's Clean Air Science Advisory Committee that a level between 0.06 and 0.07 ppm was needed "to protect human health."
Steven Johnson, the EPA's administrator, told reporters last month that the 0.075 level was "health protective."
But environmental and government watch-dog groups have complained that White House officials intervened to prevent the EPA from setting stronger standards that would have been more costly for industry. Part of the dispute was how much weight to give the financial and health benefits of cutting ozone pollution.
A June 2007 statement from the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs questioned the link between surface ozone and health as the EPA was mulling its new smog standards.
The statement pointed to "considerable uncertainty in the magnitude of the association between ozone and premature mortality."
"It is a very big slam at the Bush administration," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the environmental group Clean Air Watch, said of the National Academies report. O'Donnell said that the Bush administration has "consistently tried to sweep the ozone-death connection under the rug."
A spokesperson at the White House Office of Management and Budget referred questions about Tuesday's report to the EPA.
A statement from EPA spokesman Jonathan Schrader did not address the White House's influence over the agency's ozone rules. The EPA "will begin incorporating several key recommendations immediately, such as refining how ozone-related mortality is included in our future benefits analyses," the statement said.