Wheeze a While Longer

The air is unhealthy in nearly one in every five counties in the US, according to new ozone standards from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA found that 474 counties have unacceptable levels of ground-level ozone, a major ingredient in smog.


Ozone is formed when fossil fuel fumes (principally from cars, trucks, power plants and industrial facilities) react with sunlight. Ozone is linked to respiratory problems such as bronchitis and emphysema. As the EPA puts it, "Ozone is unhealthy to breathe, especially for people with respiratory diseases and for children and adults who are active outdoors."

The New Standards

The new ozone health standards stem from 1997 EPA rules that were delayed by numerous court challenges. The US Supreme Court upheld the rules in early 2001. Now, in 2004 the EPA has issued the new ozone health standards.


Counties with marginal to moderate pollution have until 2007 to 2009 to comply with the new standards, while highly polluted counties get more time. The EPA gave Los Angeles and surrounding counties until 2021 to comply.


In response to the EPA announcement, Denise Reis, a patient at the New Jersey Medical School in Newark, commented: " I have to wear a mask, that's how bad it (the air) is. I gasp and wheeze, and I have to wear that stupid mask.''

Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.
Frederick Hecht, M.D.
Medical Editors, MedicineNet.com

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EPA Issues Designations on Ozone Health Standards

(Washington, DC - April 15, 2004) Thirty-one governors were told today by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that areas of their states do not meet new health standards for ground-level ozone. Part or all of 474 counties nationwide are in nonattainment for either failing to meet the 8-hour ozone standard or for causing a downwind county to fail. The vast majority of counties, 2,668 in all, meet the new standards. Ozone aggravates asthma, damages the lining of the lungs and makes breathing more difficult. Some 159 million people live in areas that do not meet the new ozone standard.

At the same time it issued designations on attainment and nonattainment, EPA issued a new rule classifying areas by the severity of their ozone conditions and establishing the deadline state and local governments must meet to reduce ozone levels. Once designations and classifications take effect on June 15, 2004, states and communities must prepare a plan to reduce ground-level ozone.

EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt stressed that the new ozone designations do not represent failure. "This isn't about the air getting dirtier," he said. "The air is getting cleaner. These new rules are about our new understanding of health threats; about our standards getting tougher and our national resolve to meet them."

Many states received good news; 18 entire states are meeting the new more protective standard. EPA finds no nonattainment areas in the northwest or in many of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain and Great Basin states. The entire population in Iowa, Minnesota, Florida, Mississippi, Vermont, Hawaii and Alaska are breathing air that meets the new standard.

Measures that states and localities may be required to take to control ozone pollution may include stricter controls on emissions from industrial facilities, additional planning requirements for transportation sources or other programs like gasoline vapor recovery controls. EPA plans to work with states and local governments to help develop innovative approaches to meeting the new standard. A nonattainment designation does not mean that an area must curb its growth nor does it mean the loss of highway funds â€" two common myths associated with ozone designation.

"These ozone standards are strong medicine," Administrator Leavitt wrote the governors. "As a former Governor of Utah, I recognize that having parts of your state designated as being in nonattainment will require more actions on your part to achieve cleaner, healthier air. We need to work together to make certain your state can, as others have in the past, clean the air while sustaining economic growth."

EPA yesterday announced a suite of inter-related actions known as the Clean Air Rules of 2004 which include national tools to help states and communities meet the national standard for ground-level ozone. The Clean Air Interstate Rule addresses power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), both of which blow across state lines and significantly impact pollution levels, including ozone pollution, in downwind cities.

EPA's Clean Air Nonroad Diesel Rule will regulate emissions from construction and other nonroad equipment powered by diesel engines. The rule also cuts sulfur levels in diesel fuel by more than 99 percent over current levels. Both actions will significantly help localities achieve cleaner air.

Thirty areas voluntarily entered into Early Action Compacts (EACs) in 2002, agreeing to have a plan in place to reduce air pollution about two years sooner than required by the Clean Air Act. These communities have had their nonattainment status deferred as a result. These areas must attain the new ozone standard no later than December 31, 2007. Areas must submit satisfactory progress reports to retain their EAC status. Three of the original 33 EAC areas did not meet their requirements (Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee) and are no longer included in the EAC program.

The 8-hour ozone standard, 0.08 parts per million (ppm), averaged over eight hours, replaces the 1-hour standard that has been in place since 1979. The 8-hour standard was issued in 1997 after a significant body of research showed that longer-term exposure to lower levels of ozone can also affect human health. Implementation of the new standard was held up by a lengthy legal battle.

Deadlines for meeting the 8-hour ozone standard range from 2007 to 2021, depending on the severity of an area's ozone problem. For example, areas with more significant ozone problems, such as Los Angeles, may have to apply more rigorous control measures, but will have a longer time to meet the ozone standards Ground-level ozone, a primary ingredient in smog, is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and NOx react chemically in the presence of sunlight. Car, trucks, power plants and industrial facilities are primary sources of these emissions. Ozone pollution is a concern during the summer months when the weather conditions needed to form ground-level ozone â€" lots of sun and hot temperatures â€" normally occur. Ozone is unhealthy to breathe, especially for people with respiratory diseases and for children and adults who are active outdoors.

Source: EPA press release, April 15, 2004

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Last Editorial Review: 4/16/2004