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Ozone obligation

The EPA should follow its own scientific panel's recommendation and tighten air-quality rules.

August 30, 2007

That stuff you're breathing could be killing you.

Most Angelenos refer to the brown haze blanketing the city as smog, but more technically it's a noxious mix of particulate matter and gases, the prime ingredient being ozone. Most of our ozone comes from cars, trucks and other vehicles, but it's also produced by smokestacks, wet paint and other sources. It makes asthma worse and might even cause it; ozone also irritates the lungs and can kill those with respiratory problems, especially children and the elderly.

The federal government strengthened its ozone standard in 1997, but a decade of research has shown that the rules still aren't strict enough. So the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed tightening them, and will hold a daylong public hearing on the issue today in Los Angeles.

EPA rules allow a concentration of 84 parts per billion of ozone in the air. The agency has recommended changing it to 70 to 75 parts per billion. That's a disappointment, given that the EPA's own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, after reviewing the available research on ozone, unanimously ruled that the existing standard doesn't protect public health and urged lowering it to between 60 and 70 parts per billion. And bowing to complaints from industry, the EPA also has given itself a way to avoid doing anything at all: Among the options to be discussed today will be leaving the standard as it is.

California is home to eight of the 10 counties with the highest concentration of ozone in the United States, according to the American Lung Assn. (L.A. is No. 4 on the list, with San Bernardino County having the dubious honor of being No. 1.) The state already has an ozone standard of 70 parts per billion, but the rule has no regulatory teeth. The EPA can order counties to submit plans for how they'll reach compliance and cut off federal funds if they fail to do so.

The EPA under the Bush administration has long been trying to shrug off its obligation to regulate ozone, and the proposed standard was developed only after the agency was successfully sued by the American Lung Assn. If it fails to crack down, it clearly will be violating its legal responsibility to protect public health.

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