Dr. Michael Honeycutt, the top toxicologist in the state of Texas argued that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shouldn’t tighten smog rules because there would be little to no health benefit.

“Ozone is an outdoor air pollutant because systems such as air conditioning remove it from indoor air,” he argues on a blog post on the TCEQ website. “Since most people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, we are rarely exposed to significant levels of ozone.”

I don’t even know where to start – so I’ll try to take it slow. The overwhelming majority of scientists argue that the EPA should tighten ozone restrictions. In 2008, the agency set the current ozone standard at 75 parts per billion (ppb). However, in June this year, the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) somewhere between 60 and 70 ppb. A judge then ruled that the EPA has to draft a tighter smog rule by December, and the agency is expected to do so. However, Dr. Honeycutt, the head of the toxicology division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has a different opinion. He has joined Texas Republicans and others nationwide who firmly oppose imposing tighter rules on pollution.

Downtown Houston in October, 2008. The city has severe smog issues and new research suggests that pollution from fracking contributes significantly to the problem.
CREDIT: AP/DAVID J. PHILLIP

He offers two main arguments – the first one being that ‘people already spend 90 percent of their time indoor’, so why bother reducing smog levels? Well, I’m not gonna bother and explain why that argument is flawed on so many levels, and instead, I’m gonna discuss the second argument. He claims that the slight increase in premature deaths that could result if ozone standards are lowered — due to the fact that lowering levels of nitrogen oxide can temporarily increase ozone levels because nitrogen also helps dissipate ozone. This is indeed true – or at least this is what the accepted models show; but that doesn’t mean that this is a good argument, because in the long run, lowering smog levels would definitely save lives. Elena Craft, a senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund compared this situation to smokers who quit smoking, and have a higher risk of lung cancer right after quitting smoking.

“That doesn’t mean that you don’t quit smoking,” Craft said. The premature death prediction “does not mean pollution is good for you. It means that you need to double down on the efforts to reduce emissions in the air.”

A recent study suggests that the increasing activity in shale gas and oil drilling in the state of Texas has contributed significantly to an increase in ozone levels.

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