EPA, asthma and ozone: Why it impacts agriculture

EPA's ozone proposal wants agriculture and farmers to reduce tillage passes and cut carbon emissions from farm machinery

Since 1970, EPA has used asthma in children as a major reason to promulgate virtually every Clean Air Act regulation.

Ozone is seen by EPA as a major cause of asthma. Ground level ozone is formed by a reaction between volatile organic chemicals and nitrogen oxides cooked in the presence of sunlight (think smog). 

EPA claims ozone is created by a large variety of industrial and combustion processes. The two pollutants come from off-road farm and construction equipment, cars, buses, trucks and even boats.

EPA says ozone leads to asthma development and asthma. Maybe – maybe not?

EPA, sound science and asthma link

EPA's ozone proposal wants agriculture and farmers to reduce tillage passes and cut carbon emissions from farm machinery.(Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

In a new peer-reviewed paper lead by prominent researchers at Johns' Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore 23,000 children were studied. The Hopkins study found no statistically significant difference in asthma rates between those who live in high pollution neighborhoods and those who do not!

Dr. Corinne A. Keet, M.D., Ph.D., and five other doctors in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology wrote: "Although the prevalence of asthma is high in some inner-city areas, this is largely explained by demographic factors and not by living in an urban neighborhood." This is a blockbuster conclusion which undercuts a half century of EPA research which has always concluded that outdoor air pollution – ozone – in cities is to be blamed for causing asthma or increase in asthma rates.

Dr. Joseph Perrone, in The Hill newspaper, wrote "The (Hopkins) study couldn't come at a worse time for the agency. EPA is preparing to tighten national standards for ground-level ozone (the main ingredient in smog) by as much as 20%. To justify the move, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy argued she was 'following science' to protect those most at-risk – our children, our elderly, and people already suffering from lung diseases like asthma."

Costs of EPA ozone regulation
A 2009 study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine also found no link between ozone levels and asthma rates or attacks. Even with these studies, EPA proposes to lower ozone pollution in the U.S. from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to approximately 60-70 parts per billion. One trade association has estimated that EPA's new ozone rule, based in large part on ozone causing or exacerbating asthma, will cost the U.S. approximately $140 billion per year between 2017- 2040.

Paul Driessen ,an advisor to the Committee for Constructive Tomorrow, claims: " Study after study shows EPA's proposed ozone standards between 60 and 70 parts per billion will do nothing to protect public health in general or prevent childhood asthma in particular."

EPA: Ag has a role in ozone reduction
EPA sees agriculture as having a role to play in reducing ozone. EPA's webpage on Regulatory Actions has a fact sheet on agriculture and ozone. First, EPA says its new standard will improve health protection "…particularly for children, the elderly, and people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma." EPA's fact sheet notes that most states have not required any actions by agriculture to reduce VOCs or NOx.

This may be about to change. 

EPA uses California as an example saying that agriculture will have to address its ozone-forming emissions under the proposal.  Some examples: EPA will expect VOC reductions from spray applications and want more integrated pest management strategies. EPA believes it can further limit combustion emissions from farm machinery. (The California Carl Moyer program provides grants to entice farmers to buy new Tier lV diesel powered tractors.)   

EPA suggests farmers will need to combine or reduce tillage operations to reduce the number of passes through fields to eliminate air emissions. EPA also seeks to replace diesel engines in farming equipment with lower-emitting models. (I assume this means that all engines must be Tier IV engines.)

EPA says this is all needed from agriculture because ozone exposures result in harmful respiratory effects "…including the development of asthma. Asthma disproportionately affects children, families with lower incomes, and minorities, including Puerto Ricans, native Americans/Alaska natives and African-Americans."

EPA's ozone proposal appears not to rest on solid science, according to the Johns' Hopkins research. The question arises as to whether this research and other studies will be ignored by EPA.

If the research is ignored, tillage and animal agriculture may end up paying a very high price.

The opinions of Gary Baise are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or the Penton Farm Progress Group.

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