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Cough! Cough! EPA's new effort to clean the air

August 4, 2009 |  3:53 pm

More than a third of Californians report that they or an immediate family member suffer from asthma or respiratory problems, according to a recent survey by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

Now the federal Environmental Protection Agency, under a court-ordered deadline, has proposed a major new regulation to control nitrogen dioxide (NO2),  a key factor in respiratory illness. The new EPA rule, which will be the subject of a public hearing in Los Angeles on Thursday, is the first to address the dangerous gas in 35 years.

"We're updating these standards to build on the latest scientific data and meet changing health protection needs," EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said in announcing the proposal last month.

N02 spews from power plant smokestacks and from the tailpipes of automobiles and trucks, which also cause pollution from ozone and particulates, two other substances that attack the lungs. It is particularly concentrated along highways. The new EPA rule would require stronger monitoring near roadways, a key provision for many of the mainly poor and minority communities that hug the freeways in Los Angeles and other big cities.

The new regulation would retain current annual limits of 53 parts per billion, considerably higher than California's state standard of 30 ppb.  But for the first time, it would establish a one-hour federal standard of between 80 and 100 ppb, stricter than California's current hourly limit of 180 ppb. That would prevent NO2 levels from spiking during shorter periods such as rush hour.

 At a Washington hearing this week, the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, opposed the proposed new standard as excessive. Public health organizations said it should be tougher. The American Lung Assn. and others advocated an annual limit as strict as California's, and an hourly limit of no more than 50 parts per billion, about half of what EPA proposes.

"The news has been dominated in recent weeks by healthcare reform," noted Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an advocacy group. "Dirty air is the forgotten topic when it comes to healthcare reform. It will cost a lot less to keep people out of the emergency rooms. And one way to do this is to reduce dangerous nitrogen dioxide pollution."

The Los Angeles hearing will begin at 9 am at the downtown Sheraton Los Angeles at 711 Hope St.

— Margot Roosevelt

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