Friday, July 24, 2009

Smog alert! New studies argue for tougher ozone standards, caution about corn ethanol

There are several new scientific studies that I want to make sure you don’t miss.

These studies bolster the case for tougher new national health standards for smog. And they should raise a real yellow flag about the political push to put more corn-based ethanol in gasoline.

The first study found that ozone exposure, even at levels deemed safe by current clean air standards, can have a significant and negative effect on lung function, according to researchers at the University of California Davis.

The researchers found a decrease in lung function among healthy, non-smoking people exposed to ozone at a level of 70 parts per billion. (One of the researchers dryly remarked that “these findings highlight the need to study susceptible individuals, such as asthmatics, at similar ozone concentrations and durations of exposure. These studies are needed to better understand the acute rise in hospitalizations that often occur in conjunction with high-ozone periods.” Ya think?)

The results were published in the August 1 issue of the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

A little context for why this is important: you may recall that the ever-consistent Steve Johnson, head of the US EPA in the last years of the Bush administration, ignored the agency’s science advisers and set an ozone standard of 75 parts per billion.

In March, the Obama EPA signaled that it would reconsider this move. (It asked a federal appeals court to stall proceedings over pollution limits for smog to give the EPA time to determine whether to revise the controversial Bush-era standards.)

We expect EPA will indeed review the scientifically deficient Bush standards. Even if they simply review the earlier science, an honest assessment would lead to tougher national standards than those put out by the Bush team. This new research absolutely confirms the need for tougher smog standards.


Now, about another smog study noted by Reuters Health:

This one, published in the July issue of Allergy , suggested that ozone appears to have an adverse effect on childhood asthma even in rural areas.

“The major finding was that, even in rural areas, ozone might have an adverse impact on the worsening of childhood asthma," one of the researchers told Reuters Health in an email.


Both studies should raise a real warning about the politically popular push to increase use of corn-based ethanol to boost the income of farmers and agri-giants such as Archer Daniels Midland.

I realize it is politically incorrect to challenge the notion that we should be extolling the virtues of corn as a fuel. (As part of the political price to pass the recent climate legislation, the House of Representatives went along with the farm lobby’s demand that we do phony math and pretend that corn-based ethanol is a good thing for global warming. And corn champions like Senator Tom Harkin are making similar demands in the Senate. As those of you following this issue well know, this sort of deal-making undercuts the goals of that legislation.)

But a couple of things are very clear: putting ethanol in gasoline (with the possible exception of E85) causes more smog. Even the Bush EPA admitted this!

And now the corn lobby and its champions on Capitol Hill and the various governors are making a big political push to force the EPA to permit even more ethanol in regular gasoline. That will lead to even more smog, and more health problems.

These new studies suggest that would be a tragic mistake. As the second study notes, smog isn’t a problem just for those of us living in urban areas.

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