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A Times Editorial

Breathing easier

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed new limits on smog will vastly improve the quality of life for millions who suffer from heart, lung and other serious health problems.

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The move dovetails perfectly with the Obama administration's efforts to curb tailpipe and greenhouse gas emissions. And while the costs could be significant, the changes would be phased in over decades. The payback in lives and lower health care costs makes the EPA proposal both warranted and reasonable.

The plan would set the strictest standard to date for chemicals emitted by cars, power plants, industrial facilities and others that produce ground-level ozone, the main ingredient of smog. The new rule would lower the ozone limit to between 60 and 70 parts per billion (as measured over an eight-hour period). The move is backed by a scientific advisory panel and would improve the 75 ppb standard the Bush administration set two years ago in a political compromise between business and environmental groups.

The new standard could prevent thousands from dying prematurely from heart and lung disease, and spare untold numbers from the pain of aggravated asthma and other respiratory problems requiring emergency hospitalization. A lower cap would especially help children, seniors and anyone who works outdoors. Floridians also would particularly benefit. Hot weather and sunlight cause ozone to concentrate at harmful levels. Reducing smog will make the nation healthier, reduce the number of employee workdays lost to sickness and curb health care spending.

While environmentalists hailed the move, business groups said the tougher limits could lead to job losses and needless price increases as industries prepare to clean up their act. But those concerns are speculative at best. The EPA is not expected to issue a final standard before August. And while the cost of complying could range between $19 billion and $90 billion, EPA estimates the nation will save up to $100 billion in preventable hospital costs and lost workdays. What's more, the new rules would phase in over time. States would have until 2013 to plan for controlling smog and up to 2031 to actually bring smog under control. This allows time for environmental gains under new fuel-economy standards and greenhouse gas emissions cuts to come into play.

There is no denying the tougher standards will force changes across the nation. Half the counties that monitor ozone violate current federal standards, and the vast majority — Pinellas and Hillsborough included — would not meet the toughest new targets. But this moves the nation's environmental health in the right direction. The measure gives states and industries time to curb pollution in many ways, from containing urban sprawl and expanding mass transit to diversifying the nation's energy supply. And it puts science back in its rightful place as a driver of public health policy. That should both protect Americans and give industry the regulatory certainty it needs to chart a cleaner future.

Breathing easier 01/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 6:06pm]
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