Saying public health depends on it, environmental groups and health care professionals gathered Wednesday at a playground in Schenley Park and urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to quickly adopt strong regulations limiting smog-producing emissions from industry, coal-burning power plants and vehicles.
The news conference, held in front of an 18-foot-tall inflatable hand holding an inhaler, is part of a nationwide initiative by environmental groups and was triggered by the EPA's decision Tuesday to delay adoption of stricter anti-smog rules for the fourth time since President Barack Obama took office.
"The rules are at the Office of Management and Budget for review, giving industry another chance to push back against the tighter regulations," said Randy Francisco of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "Well, we're pushing back publicly saying these rules are important and we don't want to wait any longer."
The delay will have significant health impacts in Allegheny County, where ozone levels can exceed the existing federal standard and where more than 78,000 adults and 25,000 children have asthma, said Evelyn Talbott, a researcher and epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health.
"Breathing in ground-level ozone, or smog -- particularly over 60 part per billion -- poses a significant risk to the health of people in our communities," Ms. Talbott said. "With adverse health impacts such as reduced lung function and increased risk of premature death from heat and lung disease, it is clear that stronger ozone standards are needed to better protect public health."
Ground-level ozone, the primary component of smog, is created when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds chemically mix on hot, sunny days.
In 2008, the Bush administration set the ozone standard at 75 parts per billion, ignoring a federal Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee recommendation that the limit be set between 60 and 70 parts per billion.
New scientific studies show that healthy adults can experience breathing problems when ozone levels reach 60 parts per billion, and the World Health Organization recommends a standard of 50 parts per billion.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, tightening the ozone standards would save up to 12,000 lives per year and prevent thousands of heart attacks, tens of thousands of asthma attacks and emergency room visits and also hundreds of thousands of lost workdays.
"Last week, because of the hot weather, we had four days of alerts warning of high ozone levels," said Jamin Bogi, of GASP, the Pittsburgh-based organization that has launched a new Athletes United for Healthy Air campaign. "It shouldn't be acceptable to tell children that because we've made too much pollution they'll have to stay inside today."
But tighter ozone standards will hurt job creation and a fragile economic recovery, according to business and industry organizations -- including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, American Chemistry Council and American Petroleum Institute -- that have lobbied to delay any new standards.
National environmental, science and health groups that have lined up to push the new standards forward include the Environmental Defense Fund, Union of Concerned Scientists, American Lung Association, Allergy Foundation of America and the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards.
Tiffany Hickman, outreach coordinator for Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, said polls show voters don't believe the supposition that stricter standards will hurt jobs.
"Every summer, smog sends 10,000 people in Western Pennsylvania to emergency rooms," she said. "We all have the right to breathe easy and stay healthy."
White House spokesman Brendan Gilfillan on Tuesday would not specify when a decision on a new ozone standard would be reached, but he said it would be announced "shortly."
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.