Texas Environmental Regulators Refute EPA’s Ozone Claims

A team of researchers at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) published an analysis showing alarmist claims about current ozone levels and public health simply do not add up. The TCEQ analysis challenges the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for using similar claims to support a drastic reduction in the federal ozone standard, which the manufacturing industry warns could be “the most expensive regulation ever issued by the U.S. government.”

The TCEQ’s analysis, published in the May 2015 edition of EM Magazine, responds to the EPA’s proposal to lower the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to somewhere between 65 ppb and 70 ppb. The EPA claimed the proposal is “in line with the latest science” on air quality and public health. But according to the TCEQ’s analysis, the EPA is relying on sources, methods and assumptions that are “very inconsistent,” “misleading,” “unrealistic,” “critically flawed,” and “implausible.” An Energy In Depth analysis from earlier this year also showed how EPA inflated the health benefits of the rule to help justify its imposition.

The TCEQ analysis concludes that “the thoughtful integration of the scientific data does not support the assumption that lowering the ozone standard from 75 ppb to 70–65 ppb will result in measurable health benefits.”

Meanwhile, activist groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and American Lung Association have been actively misrepresenting air quality trends as they campaign to drive the ozone standard even lower to 60 ppb. According to E&E News, these misrepresentations have been called out by state air quality regulators in at least four states, including Texas. At the same time, the NRDC and ALA are trying to justify their campaign by arguing further reductions in ozone will result in fewer asthma cases. But this argument ignores more than a decade of data showing asthma cases continuing to rise while ozone levels have fallen.

The EPA itself concedes “there is no statistically significant decrease in asthma exacerbations with a decreasing level of the ozone standard” in one of the supporting documents for the ozone proposal, the TCEQ says. Lost in the debate, according to the TCEQ analysis, is the fact that America’s air is dramatically cleaner than it was decades ago:

“We agree that respiratory effects can occur at the high ozone concentrations that were measured in the 1980s and 1990s. The pertinent question is whether lowering the ozone standard from 75 ppb to 70 or 65 ppb will result in a measurable reduction in these effects. In this short review, we consider some important concerns with EPA’s conclusions about the health effects of ambient ozone concentrations. We conclude that EPA has not demonstrated that public health will measurably improve by decreasing the level of the ozone standard.”

The TCEQ also notes that most areas of Texas “recorded their lowest ozone values ever in 2014,” part of a trend that has seen ozone levels fall 29 percent in the Houston area and 21 percent in the Dallas/Fort Worth area during the past 15 years. These reductions have followed more than $1 billion in state spending since 2001, and “as the concentration of ambient ozone decreases, it becomes exponentially more difficult, and expensive, to attain further reductions,” the TCEQ warns.

TCEQ Toxicology Division Director Michael Honeycutt, Ph.D. co-authored the analysis published in EM Magazine. In a follow-up interview with Energy In Depth, Honeycutt explained the TCEQ’s critique of the EPA’s proposal and the ozone-related claims of activist groups.

EID: The EPA says it’s bringing the national ozone standard “in line with the latest science” and there will be significant health benefits, such as preventing 320,000 to 960,000 asthma attacks. What’s your view?

Honeycutt: I don’t think the EPA can really back those claims up with science, if you really look at the data.

There are epidemiology studies, there are toxicology studies and there are clinical studies. The EPA is basing a lot of their claims on epidemiology studies. The most common kind of epidemiology study regarding ozone is a retrospective study where a researcher will go into an area and find out how many hospital admissions there were on a certain day, and what the ozone concentration was on that day. Then, sometime later, the researcher will measure hospital admissions and ozone concentrations again. If hospital admissions and ozone are both higher the second time, the researcher will say ozone was responsible for the increase.

But that assumes ozone was the only factor that changed. A number of studies have done that, and what you find is they’re very inconsistent. Most studies that look at multiple factors like pollen or other pollutants, and controlled for those other factors, do not find an effect from ozone.

There are much bigger factors than ozone, so if you don’t control for those factors, then you can’t make the claim that ozone is causing increased asthma attacks. For example, the condition inside someone’s house is a big factor. If there are pets inside, or cockroaches, those are very potent inducers of asthma attacks. Smoking is another example. Second-hand smoke is a big factor when it comes to asthma.

EID: In terms of health benefits, your paper says there’s a big difference between reducing ozone from the levels experienced in the 1980s and 1990s and from the levels seen today. Why is that?

Honeycutt: Most of the studies cited by the EPA on outdoor ozone concentrations and health effects were conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, when peak ozone levels were much higher than they are now. Those peak levels were easily 50 percent to 100 percent higher than today’s levels. The country has made huge strides in terms of reducing ozone since then. We’ve made such huge strides that there’s not much ozone left to reduce, because we’re approaching background levels in a lot of areas.

We are not starting at 100 parts per billion and going down to 90, like we were doing decades ago. That ten ppb decrease would be easy to attain.  The EPA is talking about lowering the standard from 75 parts per billion down to 70 or 65. That five to 10 part per billion reduction would be extremely difficult to attain.

We recently submitted some work for publication that shows the actual doses of ozone your body gets from those three concentrations – 75, 70 and 65 parts per billion – aren’t different from each other. So your body can’t tell the difference between 75, 70 or 65 parts per billion.

However, lowering the standard down from 75 to 65 is huge in terms of what it takes to get there. In terms of implementation, the things we would have to do to get those ozone reductions are monstrous. Yet your body can’t tell the difference between those concentrations. So it’s not going to have an effect on human health.

EID: What does the data since the 1990s say about ozone and health conditions, such as asthma?

Honeycutt: Asthma cases and asthma attacks have increased while ozone concentrations have gone down. If they were linked, you would expect asthma incidences to go down, too. But they’re not. They are continuing to rise, and that’s just a huge clue that one does not have an impact on the other.

EID: So what’s the basis for the EPA’s conclusion that there will be health benefits from further reducing ozone levels?

Honeycutt: To answer that question, you have to wade through a couple thousand pages of text and hundreds of figures and I don’t think most people actually do that. I think most people just rely on other people for their information. But we’ve actually read those documents and the studies they cited.

EPA’s justification for the lower standard lies in the clinical data. In a study, 59 people were clinically exposed to 60 parts per billion while exercising. Only three of them were affected, which is not statistically significant. So EPA is going away from statistical methods and saying those three of 59 could represent sensitive people out in the public, and calling that an adverse effect. But using the statistics my son was taught in high school, that’s not statistically significant. Statistics is the hallmark of science.

Those three of the 59 who had the effect, it’s an effect that goes away within an hour or so. So it’s not an adverse effect. Even by the EPA’s own definition, it’s not an adverse effect. Yet, they are saying it is.

As for health benefits, to come up with a dollar figure, they look at mortality. That data is even worse in terms of reproducibility. In other words, one researcher will go into an area and find mortality associated with ozone concentrations, and another will go into the same area and won’t.  Interestingly, in areas of the country with the highest ozone concentrations – like Southern California – the majority of the studies don’t find an association between ozone and mortality. If there were an association, you would expect it to be worse there, where there are higher ozone concentrations.

What we are really dealing with here is statistical noise. Effectively, there is no relationship between these low-level ozone concentrations and mortality. Almost every time, when you factor in other variables, the supposed effect of ozone goes away.

EID: Outside groups, such as the American Lung Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have made their own claims about air quality. As a public health official and environmental regulator, what do you think of those claims?

Honeycutt: They rely on old data and ignore the new data. For example, 2014 was a great year not only for Texas but across the country for ozone.

You have to look at this issue in context and as a whole. Our country is obese and getting more obese. We need kids to get out and play. In Texas, we have a program to get kids out from their TVs and computers and into the fresh air and sunshine and actually play. Because indoor air quality, as a general rule, is going to be worse than outdoor air quality.

On a typical summer day, even when we are issuing ozone alerts based on an 8-hour averaging time, overall the air quality outside is still better in general than air quality indoors. So, are we going to tell kids to stay indoors and breathe worse air instead of getting outside and playing during recess at school?

When these groups look at only one pollutant, they are missing the point. If they’re concerned about health, they need to look at air quality in total, not just one pollutant. And that one pollutant, ozone, at the current health standard is not going to cause the health effects they claim.

EID: If the ozone standard is tightened, what kind of regulatory actions will it take to meet the standard, and how much control will the EPA have over what states do?

Honeycutt: Good question. A lot of states are going to have to ramp up and start doing State Implementation Plans to reduce ozone. And what they are going to find is industrial activity isn’t the biggest contributor. It’s the cars.

If it’s at 65 parts per billion, it’s going to take dramatic lifestyle differences, because we are going to have to get cars off the road. Even if you are talking about electric cars, that electricity has to come from somewhere, as in power plants, which have emissions of their own.

It’s going to take no drive days, closing down drive-thru lanes and things like that. People think this is hyperbole, but if we are going to meet the deadline of a few years to meet the new standard, it’s going to take dramatic lifestyle changes to reduce vehicle miles traveled. We’re also going to have to regulate construction activity. People aren’t thinking about the ripple effect, and it’s going to be dramatic.

On the level of control the EPA will have, if you ask the EPA, they will say “none, it’s up to the states.” The states are really in a horrible position. Individual states have to come up with a State Implementation Plan, but the EPA gets to approve the plan. And there are things EPA will approve and won’t approve.  They make us do what they want us to do with their approval or disapproval. That’s how they control it – not directly, but indirectly.

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