In summary

Rejecting a tougher smog standard is not based on the latest science, California officials say.

California scientists and air quality officials said today that the Trump administration’s decision to not strengthen health standards for a key ingredient of smog fails to protect public health, particularly children with asthma. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday that it will maintain existing standards for ozone, which forms when emissions from industries, tailpipes and consumer products bake in the sun. 

Smog has long choked California, particularly the southern half. The Los Angeles basin and the San Joaquin Valley have the nation’s worst ozone pollution, and air-quality officials for decades have been trying to clean up cars, factories, paints and other products that contribute to ozone.

More than 100 million people in the United States, including nearly 35 million Californians, live with air that exceeds the EPA’s health standard for ozone. Research has shown that ozone, a colorless, potent gas that irritates lungs, can trigger asthma attacks and cause other health problems, including increasing the risk of infections. Children, the elderly and outdoor workers are especially vulnerable. 

“Any way you look at it, California has to face this issue head on more than any other state in the US.”

Kevin cromar, NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management

While smog has dropped dramatically nationwide since the 1970 passage of the Clean Air Act, the Los Angeles air basin has seen ozone levels tick up from 2015 to 2019. And even with economic activity reduced amid the coronavirus pandemic, many parts of California had unhealthy air over the past week. 

“There’s no getting around it,” said Kevin Cromar, director of the Air Quality Program and a clinical associate professor at the NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management. “Any way you look at it, California has to face this issue head on more than any other state in the US.” 

The EPA is required to re-evaluate smog standards every five years. The agency announced Monday that it would keep its 2015 standard, which limits ozone to 70 parts per billion, citing a 4% drop in ozone pollution between 2017 and 2019. 

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“Based on a review of the scientific literature and recommendation from our independent science advisors, we are proposing to retain existing ozone standards which will ensure the continued protection of both public health and the environment,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. 

But California’s air quality and environmental health agencies warned in a December letter that the scientific analysis underpinning the EPA’s decision included “insufficient consideration of more vulnerable segments of the population.” Children with asthma are among the most vulnerable to the effects of ozone.

Members of the EPA’s scientific advisory committee “lack the expertise to fully review” the science assessment, the agencies said

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which represents the four-county Los Angeles basin, questioned whether the decision was based on the best available science, as required under the Clean Air Act. 

“South Coast AQMD is concerned that U.S. EPA accelerated the normal timeline and process to properly evaluate the underlying science and properly determine whether to revise the air standard,” Nahal Mogharabi, director of communications, said in an email. “As an agency charged with protecting public health, South Coast AQMD wants to make sure that air standards are set according to the best-available science.” 

The EPA under the Trump administration disbanded some of its expert panels and failed to appoint one to review the ozone standards. Members of its scientific advisory committee were replaced, with some of the members voicing doubts about the health effects of air pollution.

Smog hovers over the city Los Angeles. The South Coast Air Quality Management District has questioned whether the Trump administration’s decision to not tighten the ozone health standard is based on the best available science. | Photo by Steven Buss via Flickr

Even the scientists who advised the EPA on the 2015 standards warned that 70 parts per billion might not be safe enough for vulnerable groups, like children and people with asthma, according to Chris Frey, a professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University who chaired the scientific advisory committee between 2012 and 2015. 

“Our panel felt there was not adequate protection. And the science has not changed very much since the 2014 letter that we wrote,” Frey said. “So it’s a little dumbfounding that somehow there’s more protection at 70 parts per billion now than there was in 2014. That doesn’t make sense.”

Parts of California exceed the existing national targets for ozone by such large amounts that the EPA’s decision is unlikely to have an immediate effect, according to Sean Hecht, co-executive director, of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

But establishing a standard that’s protective of public health would have created a key benchmark for California and other polluted areas to achieve in the future. “That helps us to gauge how well we’re doing, and how well our policies are working, and how effective they are,” Hecht said. “It’s important to have a target that’s health protective.”

“While the state of California continues to move forward in reducing emissions and doing what we can, this impacts the rest of the country.”

sylvia vanderspek, chief of air quality planning at the california air resources board

Already, 19 parts of the state are violating the 2015 health standard, according to the air board. That includes the country’s only two extreme nonattainment areas, the Los Angeles and San Joaquin basins. State and regional authorities are still developing plans, due in 2021 and 2022, showing how they will meet the 2015 standards.

California has set its own ozone standard that is somewhat more stringent than the federal government’s. But with the federal standard, “there’s a lot more teeth to it,” said Sylvia Vanderspek, chief of the air quality planning branch at the California Air Resources Board. Failing to meet the federal standard can trigger penalties, including — in extreme cases — losing funding for transportation projects. 

Vanderspek said that tightening the standard is important to reflect what’s needed to protect public health across the nation.

“Really it’s a description of what is healthy air, and while the state of California continues to move forward in reducing emissions and doing what we can, this impacts the rest of the country,” Vanderspek said.  

In its effort to clean up ozone and other air pollutants, California last month adopted a landmark rule requiring manufacturers to sell clean trucks in the state, and has long required sales of zero emission passenger vehicles. 

The federal government, however, has yanked California’s authority to enforce its zero emission vehicle program for cars and light-duty trucks, a move that California is fighting in court

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Rachel Becker is a reporter with a background in scientific research. After studying the links between the brain and the immune system, Rachel left the lab bench with her master's degree to become a journalist...