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Reckless House Legislation Would Impose Moratorium on Clean Air & Health Protections

John Walke

Posted July 19, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote next week on the “Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act" (H.R. 4078) – a bill that, among other things, imposes a moratorium on issuing virtually any new regulations as long as unemployment remains above 6%, regardless of the value of such regulations or support for them. Life-saving clean air standards for smog and soot are just a few examples of standards that would be blocked by this bill – with disastrous consequences for public health.

The Clean Air Act requires that EPA set public health standards for clean air (so-called “National Ambient Air Quality Standards” (NAAQS)) at a level that protects public health with an “adequate measure of safety.” EPA is currently updating standards for both smog and soot pollution, but were H.R. 4078 to become law, this review would be halted unceremoniously.

Americans everywhere would face more asthma attacks, more heart attacks, and more respiratory problems than they otherwise would have with updated clean air standards. Standards that deliver on the Clean Air Act's promise of clean, healthy air for all Americans. Let’s look at what a moratorium on these clean air standards and others would mean.

Fine Particle Pollution Standards  - EPA proposed stronger clean air standards for particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller (“PM2.5” or fine particle pollution) in June of 2012.

Fine particles are approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair, and are so small that they can penetrate deep into the lungs and blood stream, causing a variety of serious health impacts. These include:

  • increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing, or difficulty breathing;
  • decreased lung function;
  • aggravated asthma;
  • development of chronic bronchitis;
  • irregular heartbeat;
  • nonfatal heart attacks; and
  • premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

EPA recognizes that the “scientific literature provides no evidence of a threshold below which health effects associated with exposure to fine particles – including premature death – would not occur.” (my emphasis added).

However, fine particle standards have not been updated properly since 1997, and EPA last formally evaluated the science on fine particles in 2006. Even then an independent panel of science advisors and the agency's internal scientists recommended that EPA tighten national standards for fine particles. The Bush administration ignored those recommendations, refused to strengthen the standards, and their inaction was rejected by the courts.

EPA’s new proposal follows the recommendations of these scientists and proposes to lower standards for particulate matter from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to between 12 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter. A standard set at this level would save thousands of lives every year.

H.R. 4078 would block these clean air standards from being strengthened, thereby guaranteeing that children, people with asthma, the elderly and all of us must continue to breathe unhealthy air. As a result, many thousnds of lives would be lost that the Clean Air Act requires to be saved.

Smog Pollution Standards – More protective smog pollution standards could similarly be trashed were H.R. 4078 to become law. EPA notes that “[b]reathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ground level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.”

National standards for ozone were updated in 1997 and again in 2008, although the 2008 Bush administration standards are considered to be “not legally defensible given the scientific evidence” by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. EPA is currently in the process of reviewing the science on these standards with updates to better protect public health due next year.

H.R. 4078's moratorium on new standards would prevent EPA from going forward with more protective standards, again guaranteeing a cascade of health hazards and unsafe air quality for Americans.

Looking at this outrageous legislation from another perspective, tens of thousands of lives would have been lost to air pollution had this bill become law in the summer of 2011. EPA’s landmark Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants both were finalized this year, and together they will save up to an estimated 45,000 lives every year once fully implemented: the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will save up to 34,000 lives every year [pdf], and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will save up to 11,000 lives each year [pdf]. H.R. 4078 would have blocked both of those life-saving measures.

The Clean Air Act is a critical tool to protect the health of American families and communities. Newly finalized and imminent health standards will bring enormous improvements in air quality. These standards will deliver correspondingly huge reductions in asthma attacks, heart attacks, and even deaths associated with air pollution.

Blindly demolishing clean air standards with wrecking ball legislation like H.R. 4078 is morally reprehensible. Americans have a right to clean air regardless of economic conditions or the political whims of Congressional extremists. H.R. 4078 takes away this right and hurts Americans. It has no business becoming law.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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