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Hotline, Winter 2002

by Suzanne Seppi, GASP Executive Director

The air quality is visably better than it used to be in what was once the “Smoky City.” Still, we keep learning that this breathable envelope of air that surrounds us all has important effects on our health even when, comparatively, the air quality seems improved. The Hotline has often included information about ozone concerns in the western PA region, and our readers are no doubt familiar with the summer’s Ozone Action Days. New air quality standards are being proposed that are more stringent than the present standards because we continue to discover that there are serious health effects to the public and the environment at the presently accepted levels.

Ozone can stimulate asthma attacks, and asthma is almost epidemic in this country. A new study published in the January 1, 2002 edition of the American Journal of Epidemiology shows that “Pregnant Los Angeles area women living in regions with higher levels of ozone and carbon monoxide pollution were as much as three times as likely to give birth to children who suffered from serious heart defects.”

Researchers at UCLA School of Public Health and the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program found the second month of pregnancy to be a time of risk for exposure to higher levels of either of these two pollutants. It is a time when the heart and other organs begin developing. Beate Ritz, a UCLA epidemiologist who headed the study said, “More research needs to be done, but these results present the first compelling evidence that air pollution may play a role in causing some birth defects.”

“There has been a big reduction in the levels of criteria air pollutants like ozone and carbon monoxide over the years,” Ritz said. “But there still may be air toxics and fine particles or other secondary pollutants that occur alongside carbon monoxide and ozone, but which we don’t measure routinely or know about, and those things may pose health risks we don’t yet understand.” One in 33 babies in the United States is born with serious birth defects.1

Information like this makes it doubly important that we hold our elected officials’ feet to the fire when it comes to reducing air pollution. Unfortunately it appears that the Bush Administration is likely moving forward with an extensive package of regulatory changes to the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review (NSR). NSR not only affects many new sources of pollution but requires facilities that upgrade or expand beyond a certain level to install new pollution controls. Many old power plants have expanded or upgraded but have not added additional emission controls.

The plan being considered would result in more pollution and dirtier air from several hundred power plants and oil refineries throughout the country. Under today’s rules, if an electric generating unit is making a major modification, it only has to go through NSR if it is also increasing its emissions over a baseline established by averaging the previous two years. However, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to change this calculation by allowing facilities to use a different baseline.

Various sources suggest it will be a baseline using the highest polluting year in the last five years, or even the highest polluting year in the last ten years. What could this mean? A lot more polluted air, to say the least.

For example, according to Clear The Air:2

In the state of Pennsylvania, if all units took advantage of a 10-year baseline test, power plant nitrogen oxide emissions could more than double, from 208,000 tons to 472,000 tons. By contrast, under the current test the maximum increase without triggering NSR would be 56,000 tons. (Nitrogen oxides are precursors to ozone formation.)

This is just one of several loopholes that are likely to be suggested. Consider sending your opinions about this issue to the White House:

President Bush: president@whitehouse.gov
Vice President Cheney: vice.president@whitehouse.gov
White House comment line: 1-888-552-9406

1. Information used for discussion of birth defects taken from Urban Air Pollution Linked to Birth Defects, Environmental News Service, http://ens-news.com
2. Clear The Air Fact sheet, 1200 18th Street NW, 5th Floor, Washington DC 20036, www.cleartheair.org