Feds set new sulfur dioxide air standard

Posted: 6/5/2010

From Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana:

The federal government has set a new standard for a pollutant that aggravates asthma and other respiratory illnesses. The purpose is to better protect public health.

The new sulfur dioxide standard comes with more monitoring and better notification of the public. Health associations say it will help reduce emergency room visits and premature deaths and help people with respiratory illnesses take health precautions when air quality is bad.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says because short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide is of the most concern, a new one-hour health standard will replace the annual and 24-hour limit. The agency is under a court order to issue a new standard for the first time since 1971.

Lake County meets the standard now, but the EPA expects the county to be in violation come 2020. Lake County had an average level of 64 parts per billion in 2007 to 2009 based on monitoring data. EPA projects Lake County will be at 82 parts per billion in 2020 based on monitoring data from 2005 to 2007. That would be above the 75-parts-per-billion hourly standard the EPA has set.

"Compared to the new standard of 75 (parts per billion), there is an ample margin of safety between current measured values and the standard itself," Indiana Department of Environmental Management spokesman Rob Elstro said in an e-mail. "According to U.S. EPA's analysis, nine Indiana counties currently measure air quality that may exceed the standard. However, we cannot estimate the actual impact on the state due to additional studies that U.S. EPA is requiring states to conduct."

Porter County measured 65 parts per billion from 2007 to 2009 and is projected to reduce it to 60 parts per billion by 2020.

Sulfur dioxide tightens the airways, making it harder for people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lung diseases to breathe, according to the American Lung Association. It also worsens coughing and wheezing and increases asthma attacks.

"Breathing sulfur dioxide sends people with lung diseases to the emergency department or the hospital for breathing problems," said Charles Connor, president and CEO of the American Lung Association.

EPA estimates that the health benefits from the new standard will range from $13 billion to $33 billion annually. The benefits include preventing 2,300 to 5,900 premature deaths and 54,000 asthma attacks a year. The estimated implementation cost in 2020 is about $1.5 billion.

EPA said the change will improve states' ability to alert the public when short-term sulfur dioxide levels may affect their health. That's normally done by indicating it's a red, orange or green day for air quality.

"It's going to pick up many more days when we have short-term peaks of sulfur dioxide that are going to have the greatest impact on people's health. Before this, people weren't even telling them when short-term levels were high. Now, if it happens, people will know because that will be communicated through the statements the government gets out," said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs with the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago.

That means people who are extremely sensitive to bad air quality can take preventive action by limiting their exercise and making sure to take their medication with them, he said.

"It's not a substitute for breathing clean air, but it's going to assure that fewer people will end up in the hospital," he said.

Sulfur dioxide has a pungent smell and comes from the burning of coal and oil at power plants and refineries.

Communities will place new monitors by Jan. 1, 2013, and do computer modeling to identify where problems are.

EPA expects to identify or designate areas not meeting the new standard by June 2012. After that, states will have to come up with a plan for how to get counties that don't meet the standard into compliance.

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