WASHINGTON - The air in hundreds of US counties is too dirty to breathe, the government said yesterday, ordering a multibillion-dollar expansion of efforts to clean up smog in cities and towns nationwide.
The federal action, which lowers ozone limits for the atmosphere, means that 345 counties will now be in violation of the health requirement, about four times as many as under the old rules. However, scientists said the change still isn't enough to significantly reduce heart attacks and asthma attacks from breathing smog-clogged air, and they pressed the Environmental Protection Agency to issue even more stringent requirements.
Electric utilities, oil companies, and other businesses had lobbied for leaving the smog rule alone, saying the high cost of lower limits could hurt the economy and noting that many communities still haven't met requirements set a decade ago.
EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, already a target of intense criticism over emissions linked to global warming and regulation of mercury from power plants, decided to take the middle ground when it comes to smog.
The EPA directed that air must contain no more than 75 units of ozone, or smog, for every billion units of air in order to be considered healthy, a reduction from the current maximum concentration of 80 to 84 parts per billion.
The new ozone standard will serve as the benchmark for state and local officials as they design pollution-control measures.
The EPA gave states years to meet the needed reductions, and areas with the worst pollution are likely to have as long as a decade to comply.
Ozone is a product of nitrogen oxides and other organic chemical compounds from motor vehicles, power plants, and industrial plants. As it comes into contact with the sun's rays, it is seen as the smog that hangs in much of the nation's air, aggravating respiratory problems for tens of millions of people.
An estimated 85 of the more than 700 counties that have monitoring stations exceed the current 80 parts per billion concentration, according to the latest EPA calculations. More than 320 counties exceed the tighter 75 parts per billion standard.
Health experts say smog under the current ozone regulation - even in areas where the limit is being met - causes hundreds of premature deaths among the elderly and health problems for thousands of young children and people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
An independent EPA advisory group of scientists said last year an ozone standard of 60 to 70 parts per billion is needed to provide an adequate margin of protection for the millions of people susceptible to respiratory problems. A similar conclusion was reached by a second advisory board on children's health.
In December 111 health scientists, in a letter to Johnson, urged the EPA to adopt the science panels' findings.
Clean-air advocates called the latest EPA reduction a move in the right direction - but also a political compromise that does not go far enough.
"It's disheartening that once again EPA has missed a critical opportunity to protect public health and welfare by ignoring the unanimous recommendations of its independent science advisers," said William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, whose members will be developing programs to meet the federal air quality requirement.