updated 6/21/2007 1:53:23 PM ET 2007-06-21T17:53:23

The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that current smog standards don't sufficiently protect public health and proposed tightening them for the first time in a decade.

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The agency proposed reducing levels of ground-level ozone — the major smog component — from the current .08 parts per million to between .070 and .075 parts per million.

The EPA will take public comment for 90 days and settle on a final number by March 12, 2008. However, it also is soliciting comments on alternative standards, including keeping the current one or going down to .060 parts per million.

The EPA's decision to take comments on keeping the current standard was decried by environmentalists but welcomed by business and industry groups that have been lobbying for the status quo, saying changing ozone standards would be costly and unnecessary.

"Based upon the current science I have concluded that the current standard is insufficient to protect public health," EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson told reporters on a conference call, noting that ozone can harm the lungs, especially in children and old people, and aggravate asthma.

Johnson was asked repeatedly to explain why he would accept comment on keeping a standard that he himself, a career scientist, has determined doesn't protect health.

"Based upon the science, I do not believe there is scientific justification for retaining the current standard. Hence I am proposing to toughen the standard," he said. "But I am taking comment on the full range of what I have heard people ask for."

Environmental groups charged that the outcome was the result of industry pressure on the Bush administration.

"This suggests that recent polluter visits to the White House helped shape this decision. It raises huge concerns about what EPA will do with its final decision," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group. "Why leave the door open to doing something you know is wrong — unless that came from political pressure?"

Johnson didn't respond directly when asked about environmentalists' allegations about industry lobbying. He repeated that he's concluded that the current standard is insufficient.

The National Association of Manufacturers was among business groups that issued statements Thursday saying they'd be advocating for retaining the current standard.

"We recognize that the EPA has a duty to protect public health, and studies have shown implementing the current standard will do just that," NAM President John Engler said. "Even though a lot has been done and spent, there is still a long way to go to meeting the current standard. Therefore we see no reason to revise the current standard."

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is supposed to review standards on ozone and other pollutants every five years. When that didn't happen five years ago, a lawsuit by the American Lung Association resulted in a settlement between EPA and advocacy groups to propose revised levels for smog. Thursday was the deadline for that proposal to be offered.

According to EPA, 104 counties are out of compliance with the current standard. If the standard went to .075 parts per million 398 counties would be out of compliance, and if it went to .070 parts per million 533 counties would be out of compliance.

States with noncompliance areas must come up with implementation plans to come into attainment or face a loss of federal highway funds. Most of the problem areas are in California, Texas, the Atlanta area, the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic and the Upper Midwest.

Air pollution can contribute to premature death, lung cancer, chronic bronchitis and heart attacks, according to the American Lung Association. It can also lead to asthma attacks, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath , coughing, wheezing and other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Those at greatest risk are children, the elderly, those with lung and heart problems and people with diabetes , says the ALA.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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