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The great EPA ozone-asthma caper
Harold Brown, a University of Georgia professor emeritus, is the author of The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the 20th Century. - photo by File photo

The first ozone alert of 2015 was issued June 17 amid 90-degree temperatures in metro Atlanta, a “Code Orange” warning children and “sensitive” individuals to “limit prolonged outdoor exertion.”

A new proposal by the federal Environmental Protection Agency would once again lower the ozone level allowable under the Clean Air Act. Unfortunately, the EPA is ignoring the failure of an experiment it has conducted for 40 years: While it has ordered reductions in the amount of ozone allowable in the air in order to reduce asthma, asthma has increased.

From 1979 to 1997, the maximum allowable level for ozone was set at 120 parts per billion, averaged over one hour. During this period, maximum one-hour ozone concentrations for the nation decreased 20 percent. The rate (per 10,000) of doctor visits for asthma increased 25 percent.

Then, in 1997, the standard was tightened to 80 ppb averaged over eight hours. In 2008, this limit was set at 75 ppb. Now, the EPA wants the eight-hour standard set at 65-70 ppb. Much of the justification for repeatedly lowering the permissible levels of ozone is to reduce asthma (and other respiratory illnesses).

The EPA first estimated the number of people at risk of breathing too much ozone in 1984, counting those living in counties that exceeded the ozone limits. The first estimate was 79.2 million. By 1996, that had dropped 50 percent to 39.3 million.

In 1997, with the tougher standard, the population in counties exceeding the standard rose 2.5 times to 101.6 million. Since then, the numbers in counties exceeding the ozone standard have varied widely (from 53.1 million to 144.8 million) without much pattern, though the lowest number was in 2013.

The projected benefits of the proposed new, stricter standard appear small and contrary. The EPA estimates it will reduce emergency-room visits for asthma by 1,400-4,300 per year by 2025. Considering that an average of 1.95 million ER visits for asthma were made from 2008-10, a reduction of something less than 4,300 is miniscule, less than 0.2 percent.

Previous reductions of ozone levels nationally (25 percent since 1990) have not relieved asthma sufferers of ER visits, which are up 18 percent since 1992-95. If ozone was reduced and serious asthma attacks increased, what will further ozone reductions do?

The EPA conveniently explained away the contradictions in a 2003 publication: “While on the surface, this appears to suggest that air pollution is not related to the incidence or prevalence of asthma, there are too many complexities and uncertainties to draw this conclusion.”

It is incredible that “too many complexities and uncertainties” are used to explain a lack of connection, but not to question the existence of connections between ozone and asthma.

The EPA is obtuse in pointing out the connection of ozone with asthma, too. Its website lists nine triggers for asthma, and outdoor pollution is eighth, behind secondhand smoke, dust mites, molds, cockroaches and pests, pets, nitrogen dioxide and chemical irritants.

Likewise, a 2004 “Funbook” titled, “Dusty, The Asthma Goldfish and His Asthma Triggers,” which the EPA called “an educational tool to help parents and children learn more about asthma triggers,” doesn’t mention ozone.

In studies of the connection between ozone and asthma in large populations, which the EPA uses to justify setting lower standards, it is not just ozone that is triggering asthma. All of these eight or nine more-important triggers are confounding the connection. They are some of the “too many complexities and uncertainties” that complicate every setting of standards.

Another of the uncertainties about ozone and its health effects is whether ozone measured by the EPA represents the levels to which people are subjected. Ozone inside buildings is much lower than in open spaces where EPA measures it, especially in summertime, when ozone is highest and homes and offices are closed and air-conditioned.

Further, in spite of medical advances, the percentage of people reporting asthma attacks (about 4 percent, or 11 million to 13 million people) has held steady for about 20 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among the 50 percent of asthmatics who suffered an attack in 2008, “many asthma attacks could have been prevented.” The report noted that fewer than half of asthmatics had been taught how to avoid triggers, and 48 percent of adults who knew still failed to act on that knowledge most of the time.

How many of the asthma attacks blamed on ozone could have been prevented by readily available medicine and avoiding cockroaches, dust mites and all the other triggers? Clearly, the EPA doesn’t know how to cure asthma; certainly, it doesn’t know how to treat it. It is well aware, however, of its ability to push through regulations to reduce emissions to ever lower levels, regardless of cost or impact.

Brown, a University of Georgia professor emeritus, is a senior fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the 20th Century.” The foundation is an independent think tank that says its mission is to propose market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.

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