Nitrogen Dioxide Standards Decision made by the EPA

(January 26, 2010)

Statement of Charles D. Connor
President and Chief Executive Officer
American Lung Association

Washington, DC. January 25, 2010. Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the first revision to the national air quality standard for nitrogen dioxide since 1971, including the first network of roadside monitors for any of the motor vehicle pollutants.

We are pleased that EPA has finally strengthened protection against this toxic pollutant, with a new standard that limits peak one-hour levels of nitrogen dioxide. EPA’s step means that, in the future, millions of people will not have to breathe the most dangerous concentrations of this noxious gas. Nitrogen dioxide makes people cough and wheeze and inflames the tissues of the lungs. Nitrogen dioxide triggers asthma attacks and increases the likelihood asthma suffers will have to rush to the emergency department or be admitted to the hospital. Nitrogen dioxide increases the likelihood of catching lung infections such as influenza.

We support the network of nitrogen dioxide monitors located near highways. We hope this will only be the beginning of what is truly needed—a comprehensive, multipollutant network that will routinely gather information along our highways, the place in every community that has some of the highest levels of the most dangerous pollutants.

But after waiting 38 years, we had frankly hoped for a stronger, more protective standard. Their decision allows areas to have nitrogen dioxide concentrations that remain hazardous to the millions of people who will have to breathe them. Their final decision, unlike their proposal of last summer, allows twice as many days when nitrogen dioxide will spike to dangerous levels. Unfortunately, that burden is likely to fall hardest on those who can least bear it—children, older adults, people with lung disease, as well as people with low incomes, and communities of color.

Millions of people face higher risk from having to breathe dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide. EPA estimated that 36 million people live near highways, railroads or ports, where they breathe air that is more polluted with nitrogen dioxide than in other parts of the county.

This month the Health Effects Institute—a research center funded by the motor vehicle industry and EPA—released an extensive review of the evidence of the threats to health from living near a highway. An expert panel concluded that breathing the nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants from highway traffic increased the risk that a child’s asthma would get worse. Strong evidence warned that pollution from traffic may even increase the risk that children could develop asthma, or worsen their lungs’ ability to function. For older adults and people with cardiovascular disease, the evidence pointed to another dire threat—living near a highway may increase the risk of early death.

Neighborhoods near major highways are often home to people with lower incomes, as well as communities of color. Many busy highways pass through dense urban neighborhoods or near schools. Those communities often have higher prevalence of lung disease, putting them at even greater risk from breathing traffic exhaust. The Institute’s report estimated that 30 to 45 percent of people living in large North American cities live close enough to highways to breathe the dangerous pollutants there.

We face a challenge to reduce the pollution that our friends and neighbors must breathe. Today’s action is a good first step. The American Lung Association will watch the new monitoring data closely. We will continue to urge EPA to provide greater protection when the Agency reviews this standard again in five years.