Testimony Concerning the Proposed NAAQS for Ozone: A Proposal that the EPA Take No Action as a Way of Avoiding Doing Great Harm

September 12, 2007

by H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D.

Thank you for the opportunity to appear here today as you review the clean air standards for Ozone.  My name is H. Sterling Burnett.  I am a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. In that capacity, I have examined proposed and current environmental and energy laws and policies for more than 11 years, including various proposed air quality rules put forward by the Environmental Protection Agency and policies proposed to meet them in State Implementation Plans. 

I come bearing good news.  Due to technological improvements and EPA's present standards, Ozone levels are declining and they will continue to do so.  Indeed, in the last few years only 19 percent of the nation's metropolitan areas violate EPA's current ozone standard, down from 40 percent just a few years ago. Non-metropolitan counties-those that include only rural areas or smaller cities-are in even better shape, with only a 4 percent violation rate.  This decline is not surprising since both ozone and the pollutants that combine to form it are declining.  For instance:

  • NOx levels decreased 37 percent between 1980 and 2005.
  • Emissions of VOCs fell 47 percent.
  • Peak 8-hour ozone levels declined 20 percent, and days per year exceeding the 8-hour ozone standard fell 79 percent.

Many areas have just begun to implement their programs to comply with the current standard and new standards already slated to come online should reduce Ozone ever further.  As a result, many areas should shortly be getting out from under some of the Clean Air Act's development restrictions, absent a tougher standard.

Despite this progress, EPA administrator Stephen Johnson has stated science demonstrates the need for a tougher ozone standard to protect public health.  If the new limit of 0.70 to 0.75 ppb is adopted, non-attainment will become the norm, rather than the exception. The EPA's new standard would put 67 to 87 percent of metropolitan areas and 39 to 72 percent of non-metropolitan counties in violation.  Many areas would likely violate the ozone standard permanently, since, in some places, the standard will be below natural background levels.

More stringent ozone standards might be worthwhile, if ozone at current levels plausibly posed a significant threat to human health or welfare.  But research done since 1997 does not show this to be the case.  Rather, research undermines the claim that Ozone, even at current levels, is causing an increase in asthma and/or other health related problems.  Ozone simply isn't a plausible cause of the recent rise in asthma:

  • The incidence of asthma rose 75 percent from 1980 to 1996, and nearly doubled for children. At the same time, however, Ozone declined.
  • Emergency room visits and hospitalizations for asthma are lowest during July and August, when ozone levels are highest.
  • The lowest asthma rates in the world are found in developing and ex-Soviet countries with awful air pollution, while western countries with the world's cleanest air have the highest asthma rates.

Even direct attempts to link air pollution to asthma have come up empty. California researchers tracked thousands of children from ages 10 to 18 who grew up in communities with the highest ozone levels in the country.  They had a 30 percent lower risk of developing asthma when compared with children in areas with background ozone levels. The same study also showed that growing up in areas that exceed the current 85 ppb ozone standard for 120 days per year -- multiple times the number of days even the worst areas of the country suffer under at present -- has no effect on lung growth or capacity.  

Claims that present ozone levels kill thousands of people prematurely each year are based on unreliable, "observational" epidemiology studies.  They find no support in either animal studies or laboratory studies using college volunteers.  In the human laboratory studies, even at ozone levels at least 50 percent greater than the current ozone standard, volunteers had to work out for five hours before ozone elicits even a small change in lung function.  Indeed, college students are used in these studies because children, the elderly, and people with respiratory diseases-the ones who are supposedly most at risk from ozone-can't work out vigorously enough for long enough to elicit the desired health effects.

In conclusion, air quality in the U.S. is better than it has been in more than a century.  Due to natural technological turn over, technological improvements, and past and present regulatory standards, we can expect continued improvements.  There is scant evidence that the proposed standards will actually produce tangible health or environmental benefits.  In fact, the EPA's own scientists estimate full national attainment of the proposed standard would reduce hospital visits for asthma and other respiratory diseases by only a few tenths of a percent.

Therefore, we suggest the best policy would be for the EPA to certify the present standards as sufficiently protective of public health and allow the regions in violation of these standards continue down the path of improving their air quality by fulfilling the requirements of their approved SIPS.