New EPA air standards will save lives in western Colorado

The headline in last Sunday’s edition of The Daily Sentinel might have said, “New EPA air quality standards will save lives in Western Colorado — and throughout the nation,” It read instead, “New air quality standards could have costly impact on business.”

The brown cloud that has settled over the valley for the past several weeks makes me wish it had been the first headline. Certainly businesses — in this article a euphemism for the oil and gas industry — will bear a cost in meeting new standards. No doubt they will pass all or most of that rise in costs to consumers. We will all pay a bit more for our energy. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even for business — especially businesses not in energy resource production or power generation.

Unfortunately, too many people will see this simply as a hidden tax on their resources, to which they will object. Nothing new there. These same people object to everything the government tries to do to protect them from abuse by corporations.

Thinking people are more likely to see their share of the cost as an investment in our personal, as well as national, future. If predictions prove accurate, it will be a good investment financially, but an even more important one to our health and wellness.

The EPA plans to reduce the standard of ozone from its current level of .75 parts per billion to a quantity between .60 and .70 ppb. Some experts are predicting somewhere around .65 ppb as a likely final number. This is obviously better than the current acceptable level, but still well above the 60 ppm that a panel of scientists recommended.

According to a Washington Post story, the EPA estimates that “complying with the new standard would cost $19 billlion to $90 billion a year by 2020, to be largely borne by manufacturers, oil refiners and utilities.” In Mesa County, the oil and gas industry will see the greatest cost.

However, the agency also indicated “those costs would be offset by the benefits to human health, which is valued at $13 billion to $100 billion a year in the same period.”

Business people — who bear a large share of the cost of health care — might want to consider what clean air would mean to them. A healthier work force is more productive, takes fewer sick days and less time off to attend to sick family members.

Better overall health in the workforce should also reduce the contribution to health insurance premiums. Together these benefits could allay much of the increased cost from cleaning up emissions.

But the real cost of ozone pollution is human suffering and death, which cannot be calculated in a profit or loss equation. An 18-year ozone study, published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, is the first to demonstrate how dangerous ozone pollution is to public health.

Thomas H. Maugh II, writing for the Los Angeles Times, summarized the report with eloquent simplicity. “Ozone pollution is a killer,” Maugh wrote, “increasing the yearly risk of death from respiratory diseases by 40 percent to 50 percent in heavily polluted cities like Los Angeles and Riverside and by about 25 percent throughout the rest of the country.”

One of the report’s authors predicted “the findings could have profound implications because they show that ozone worsens conditions that already kill a large number of people … [with] chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and pneumonia.” The total death toll for the United States is an estimated 240,000 each year.

Ozone might not be the cause of respiratory illnesses, but it increases suffering and shortens life for those who contract them.

Cleaning our air will be costly and difficult. But without action, the ozone we breathe will not go down; nor will the suffering it causes. Fixing the problem will not only make us healthier, it might even prove to be a bargain.


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