In 2008, the EPA under Administrator Stephen Johnson revised the primary ozone standard to 75 ppb. He was succeeded the next year by Lisa Jackson, the appointee of the incoming Obama administration. Soon after, the EPA began its reconsideration of the new ozone standard, and Ms. Jackson decided to revise the standard, lowering it to 70 ppb.
Her rationale is recorded in the EPA document National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone, Final Preamble, 2011, pages 61 through 186. In this section, Jackson’s positions are summarized, then comments from interested parties appear together with EPA’s responses. A short piece summarizes the comments of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), followed by the rationale for the final decision. A second section, pages 192 through 296, describes the rationale for the secondary standard, the standard meant to protect property and other interests.
It’s a lot to read, and I can’t say I read every word. However, the impression from what I did read was that Jackson wasn’t in possession of any evidence that Johnson didn’t have. Rather, she placed different weight on the evidence. What Johnson saw as sufficient to lower the primary standard to 75 ppb and no further, Jackson felt compelled to lower the standard down to 70 ppb. Here is the summary section “Conclusions on the Level of the Primary Standard”, page 167 ff., with my comments interspersed. The frequent references to Samet are to a 67-page letter written to Jackson in March 2011 from Dr. Jonathan M. Samet, chair of CASAC with the subject line Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) Response to Charge Questions on the Reconsideration of the 2008 Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards. If you wish to read the letter, click here.
Note: The paragraph sign in brackets [¶] indicates a paragraph break that I introduced that isn’t in the original document.
To begin, let’s read what the Jackson set out to do in EPA’s own words:
As a result of the reconsideration, the Administrator has determined that a different level of the primary O3 standard than the 0.075 ppm level set in 2008 is requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety. For the reasons discussed below, the Administrator has decided to set the level of the 8-hour primary O3 at 0.070 ppm…
What influenced her to make this decision?
In the 2010 proposal, the Administrator [Jackson — MHK] concluded it was appropriate to propose to set the primary O3 standard below 0.075 ppm. This conclusion was based on the evidence and exposure/risk-based considerations … and the Administrator’s determination that 0.075 ppm was a level at which the evidence provides a high degree of certainty about the adverse effects of O3 exposure on healthy people. The Administrator’s public health policy judgment on the proposed range for the level of the primary O3 standard was framed by the evidence and exposure/risk-based considerations discussed above in this notice and informed by the following key observations and conclusions on the controlled human exposure and epidemiological studies and the results of the human exposure and health risk assessments.
She will now state four reasons why the evidence suggests that the standard should be lowered (p. 168).
(1) There is a strong body of evidence from controlled human exposure studies evaluating healthy people at O3 exposure levels of 0.080 ppm and above that demonstrated lung function decrements, respiratory symptoms, pulmonary inflammation, and other medically significant airway responses. Newly available for the 2008 review, there is the limited but important evidence of lung function decrements and respiratory symptoms in healthy people down to O3 exposure levels of 0.060 ppm…
I believe Johnson had this same evidence. I suspect that if we sat the two administrators together, they would argue about the importance of limited evidence. When is limited evidence important evidence?
(2) A large number of epidemiological studies [studies that look at people in the street, not in the laboratory — MHK] have reported statistically significant associations between ambient O3 levels and a wide array of respiratory symptoms and other morbidity outcomes including school absences, emergency department visits, and hospital admissions. More specifically, positive and robust associations were found between ambient O3 concentrations and respiratory hospital admissions and emergency department visits… across distributions of ambient O3 concentrations that extend well below the 2008 standard level of 0.075 ppm…
The above is a powerful statement, which if true, would give good cause to lower the standard. But I would want to know what the contribution to morbidity outcomes is made by ambient O3 concentrations in the 0.075 – 0.070 ppm range. This is what we need to balance against any economic cost.
The next reason concerns people with respiratory problems and diseases. Note the concern that studies that look at only healthy people may be underestimating the effects of ozone on those with respiratory problems, although by how much is unknown:
(3) There is substantial evidence … indicating that children and adults with asthma and other preexisting lung diseases are at increased risk from O3 exposure… Evidence from controlled human exposure studies indicates that asthmatics are likely to experience larger and more serious effects in response to O3 exposure than healthy people. This evidence indicates that … controlled human exposure studies of lung function decrements and respiratory symptoms that evaluate only healthy, non-asthmatic subjects likely underestimate the effects of O3 exposure on asthmatics and other people with preexisting lung diseases. However, there is uncertainty about the magnitude of the differences in their responses such that we are not able to quantify the magnitude of any such differences.
Finally, a statement of confidence that lower ozone levels will improve public health:
(4) The assessments of exposures of concern and risks for a range of health effects indicate that important improvements in public health are very likely associated with O3 levels just meeting alternative standard levels evaluated in these assessments, especially for the alternative levels of 0.070 and 0.064 ppm, relative to levels at and above 0.075 ppm…
Now the following paragraph leads me to believe that Jackson did not base her decision on evidence that Johnson did not have. Rather, she interpreted the same evidence differently and was more accepting of CASAC’s recommendations (p. 171):
These observations and conclusions led the Administrator to propose to set the primary O3 standard at a level in the range of 0.060 to 0.070 ppm. In so doing she placed significant weight on the information newly available in the 2008 review that had been reviewed by CASAC, and took into consideration public comments that had been received during the 2008 review. She also placed significant weight on CASAC’s conclusion that important public health protections can be achieved by a standard set below 0.075 ppm, within the range of 0.060 to 0.070 ppm.
Here the document acknowledges the considerations that led Johnson to establish the 0.075 ppm standard, noting the value judgements he made (p. 171):
In reaching a final decision on the level of the primary O3 standard, the Administrator again considered whether the standard level of 0.075 ppm set in the 2008 final rule is sufficiently below 0.080 ppm to be requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety. In considering this standard level, the Administrator looked to the rationale for selecting this level presented in the 2008 final rule… In that rationale, EPA observed that a level of 0.075 ppm is above the range of 0.060 to 0.070 ppm recommended by CASAC, and that the CASAC Panel appeared to place greater weight on the evidence from the Adams studies and on the results of the exposure and risk assessments, whereas EPA placed greater weight on the limitations and uncertainties associated with that evidence and the quantitative exposure and risk assessments. Additionally in 2008, EPA’s rationale did not discuss and thus placed no weight on exposures of concern relative to the 0.060 ppm benchmark level. Further, EPA concluded that “[a] standard set at a lower level than 0.075 ppm would only result in significant further public health protection if, in fact, there is a continuum of health risks in areas with 8-hour average O3 concentrations that are well below the concentrations observed in the key controlled human exposure studies and if the reported associations observed in epidemiological studies are, in fact, causally related to O3 at those lower levels. Based on the available evidence, [EPA] is not prepared to make these assumptions.” (73 FR 16483).
Now Jackson is going to state where she disagrees with Johnson. This strengthens my impression that the decision to lower the limit was a judgement call about which reasonable people can differ (p. 172):
In reconsidering the entire body of evidence available in the 2008 rulemaking, including the Agency’s own assessment of the epidemiological evidence in the 2006 Criteria Document, the views of CASAC, including its most recent advice (Samet, 2011), and the public comments received on the 2010 reconsideration proposal, the Administrator finds no basis to change her conclusion that important and significant risks to public health are likely to occur at a standard level of 0.075 ppm. Thus, she judges that a standard level of 0.075 ppm is not sufficient to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety. In support of this conclusion, the Administrator finds that setting a standard that would protect public health, including the health of susceptible populations, with an adequate margin of safety should reasonably depend upon giving some weight to the results of the Adams studies and EPA’s analysis of the Adams’s data, and some weight to the results of epidemiological studies of respiratory morbidity effects that may extend down to levels below 0.060 ppm.
A limit of outdoor ozone concentration set at level X actually protects people from effects below X, since people spend much of their time indoors where ozone levels are naturally lower. Since they are likely to be indoors when the ozone level reaches X, their maximum exposure to ozone will probably be to levels much below X. Jackson’s argument here is that if setting the limit at 0.070 ppm will limit people’s exposure to ozone levels above 0.060 ppm:
[¶]Moreover, the Administrator concludes that, in setting such a standard, consideration should be given to how effectively alternative standard levels would serve to limit exposures of concern relative to the 0.060 ppm benchmark level as well as the 0.070 ppm benchmark level, based on EPA’s exposure and risk assessments…
So far, Jackson has explained why she feels that the limit of 0.075 ppm is inadequate. She wants to take CASAC’s recommendation of a limit between 0.060 and 0.070 ppm. But she needs to select an exact number. In my next post, she’ll explain how she did that.