WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday proposed tougher controls on smog, a move that's expected to make a lasting improvement in the quality of the air that Americans breathe.
The most common form of air pollution, smog is another name for ground-level ozone, which is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight.
Found throughout the nation, smoggy air can reduce lung function and inflame airways, causing shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing and wheezing.
Children are especially susceptible to problems from smog, as are people with chronic lung diseases such as asthma or bronchitis and heart disease. When smog levels are high, asthma attacks and other lung problems increase. Studies have found that exposure to smog is linked to higher death rates. Smog also can harm healthy adults who work or exercise outdoors.
The Bush administration strengthened the smog standard in 2008, but scientists, including an EPA advisory board, said it didn't go far enough. The EPA's new proposal matches the advisory board's standard for health and adds a new standard that protects agriculture and forests.
While the exact threshold won't be set until August, the new regulation will cut emissions from such polluters as industries and power plants that burn fossil fuels, vehicles, refineries and chemical plants.
The EPA contemplates a health standard of 60 to 70 parts per billion of ozone measured over eight hours. The current standard is 75 parts per billion.
The American Lung Association and other organizations took the EPA to court arguing that the 2008 smog level was inadequate. The Obama administration's EPA said in September that it would reconsider the standard.
"This may be the biggest decision the EPA makes this year," said Frank O'Donnell, the president of Clean Air Watch, a nonpartisan environmental-watchdog group. He called the announcement "a breath of fresh air from the government."
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, said there were no scientific grounds for toughening the standard and warned that doing so "could mean unnecessary energy cost increases, job losses, and less domestic oil and natural gas development and energy security."
John Kinsman, the environment director at the Edison Electric Institute, an association of electric power companies, said in a statement: "We probably won't know for a couple of years just what utilities and other emissions sources will be required to do in response to a tighter ozone standard. States will have to cast a very wide net when targeting sources for emissions cuts, in part because utilities already have made substantial reductions in ozone-related emissions."
The EPA will hold a 60-day comment period and issue the final standards by Aug. 31. States would be required to meet the new health standard by 2014 to 2031, depending on the severity of their pollution problems.
The new standard is estimated to save $13 billion to $100 billion in health costs and lost work time, depending on where the EPA sets the final standard. The agency said the estimated costs of implementing the new rules was $19 billion to $90 billion.
The EPA also is working on tougher standards for mercury and sulfur dioxide.
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