Lung Association Applauds New SO2 Health Standard

(June 3, 2010)

The American Lung Association applauds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the new National Ambient Air Quality Standard for sulfur dioxide, the first strengthening of the limits on this dangerous air pollutant in nearly four decades.  For the first time, this standard will help curtail the bursts of this noxious gas that spew into communities living next to some of our nation's oldest, dirtiest polluters, including coal-fired power plants. This standard offers the promise of real protection to the people who have breathed these fumes for far too long.

Sulfur dioxide threatens our health in many ways.  Sulfur dioxide tightens the airways, making it harder for people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lung diseases to breathe. It 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.   Sulfur dioxide gas changes into deadly particles in the atmosphere and is linked to thousands of premature deaths. EPA estimates that this tighter standard will save 2,300 to 5,900 early deaths each year,

The national air quality standard sets the official limits on how much of this pollutant can be in the air.  The standards drive the cleanup of the sources of these pollutants in communities across the country. In this case, the standard will help protect some of the communities located closest to coal-fired power plants, industrial boilers, petroleum refineries, metal processing plants and diesel exhaust.

With today's action, EPA has wisely chosen to use an array of tools to identify the communities with dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide.  Communities will have to not only place new monitors, but do computer modeling to identify where problems may exist.  Modeling here is an appropriate and welcome supplement to monitoring and can help ensure that we can better protect the people living nearest to these big polluters. 

We also appreciate EPA's decision to make sure that every community is "classified."  In the past, communities without adequate monitoring information could avoid having to clean up because they fit in the "unclassified" category. For the first time, EPA is requiring that these communities use the modeling and monitoring data to show that they are either meeting or failing to meet the standard.  This change is a subtle, but fundamental strengthening of the protections for people living in the communities, because it means the problems they face must be recognized and addressed.

The American Lung Association has long fought to get EPA to strengthen the standard. We won a court case in 1998 that required EPA to focus on the harmful spikes in sulfur dioxide emissions that often spew from coal-fired power plants.  EPA faced legal action again by other groups that led to today's announcement.  We are pleased that today we can finally celebrate the victory.