Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act.
Thanks to yesterday’s arguments at the Supreme Court, there’s been a great deal of media scrutiny this week of the Bush administration’s industry-friendly approach to global warming.
It’s a simple game plan: Distort the science. Promote “voluntary” activities. And, above all, do nothing that would inconvenience smoke-belching campaign-contributing industries.
But it’s worth remembering that the Bush team has consistently employed the same polluter-protection tactics when it comes to dealing with widespread air pollutants that directly affect our ability to breathe.
Within a matter of weeks a key decision will be made about pollution. And we will learn if EPA career scientists—who have bravely fought up to this point against their political overseers—are going to toss in the towel.
The issue involves smog (whose chief component is ground-level ozone), the most widespread of all air pollutants and the subject of so many “Code Reds” and “Code Oranges” throughout the summer months. (Unlike ozone in the upper atmosphere, which shields the Earth from ultra-violet rays, ground-level ozone is a genuine health problem, especially for children and adults with asthma. )
Smog is caused by chemicals produced by traffic, oil refining, coal burning and other smokestack industries. It has been linked to a wide range of health problems, including asthma attacks, increased emergency room visits, and premature death.
Just how bad is smog? My friends with the American Lung Association manage a website that summarizes new studies on smog as they are published. The headlines alone ought to make every breather scream in horror:
- Low Levels of Ozone Trigger Respiratory Symptoms in Infants
- Ozone Mortality Effect is Evident Even During Heat Wave
- Hospital Admissions Go Up with Rise in Ozone
- Poor Children Hospitalized More Often After Ozone Exposures
- Ozone Triggers Cardiac Hospital Admissions in Heart Attack Survivors
And these headlines are just from last month!
The EPA last updated national health standards for smog in 1997, when then-EPA head Carol Browner courageously battled industry—and those taking industry’s side, including most of the Clinton cabinet—to set better standards. But, as noted above, the science about the dangers of smog continues to accumulate, and the EPA is under a court order to decide if the 1997 standards are sufficient to protect our health. In a bold and unanimous assessment, EPA’s independent science advisers have made it crystal clear that those standards are outdated and should be made tougher.
“There is no scientific justification for retaining the current” standard, the scientists recently wrote to EPA:
Retaining this standard would continue to put large numbers of individuals at risk for respiratory effects and/or significant impact on quality of life including asthma exacerbations, emergency room visits, hospital admissions and mortality.
The scientific panel included 23 leading doctors and scientists with expertise in air pollution monitoring, medicine, toxicology, epidemiology, clinical studies and other relevant disciplines. Unanimity among such a group is extremely rare. The scientists are still smoldering from the Bush administration’s recent decision to ignore their advice to set tougher standards for particle soot. In that case, EPA’s own career scientists battled behind the scenes for tougher standards, but they were ultimately overwhelmed by Bush political appointees Brian Mannix and William Wehrum, the former industry lawyer who now is acting head of EPA’s air pollution division. (In that classic revolving-door style, Wehrum’s former boss at EPA, Jeffrey Holmstead, has become the most prominent industry apologist on global warming as a lawyer for the BracewellGiuliani law firm, which represents both the oil- and coal-burning power industries. Note to Rudy Giuliani—is this part of your presidential campaign strategy?)
After being steamrolled on the soot standard, the EPA career staffers have begun to draft their recommendations on the smog standard. They are under a court-ordered deadline to make the recommendations public right after the first of the year.
Will they have the courage to stand up and do what’s right—and side with the independent scientists who have declared there is “no scientific justification” for endorsing the current standard, even as an option? Or will they cave in to their political bosses and side with the motley array of big polluters—ExxonMobil, the electric power industry, the auto industry, the diesel engine industry and others—who’ve already declared they don’t want smog standards made any tougher?
We’ll be watching this decision closely, with hopes that the new Congress will investigate both the health risks posed by air pollution, and the decisionmaking in this case.