Proposed Clean-Air Standards Kick Up a Storm in Congress


Strict new air-quality standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency were given their first hearing in Congress on Wednesday, and from the swirling scientific data, only one conclusion emerged: The Clinton administration is in for a long, tough fight.

In its most far-reaching environmental initiative, the agency wants to rewrite air-quality standards, reducing the amount of smog and soot--ozone and particulates--that it would consider a healthy level in the nation’s air.

But industry officials, joined by many congressional Republicans, believe that the standards are too strict and they questioned the scientific conclusions on which the standards are based.

Already, the pressure has persuaded the EPA to delay presentation of the final standards by two months. And already, the American Lung Assn., whose lawsuit prompted the agency to develop the new standards, has gone back to court to restore the original June deadline.


For Congress, the new standards pose an unpleasant dilemma, giving members the choice of voting against measures portrayed as protecting Americans from sometimes-deadly respiratory illness or voting for measures that manufacturing industries argue are unnecessary and would lead to regulations so costly that the economy would suffer.

Wednesday’s hearing before a Senate subcommittee brought together eight scientists, including two who served on a committee that advised the EPA on scientific studies of the connection between health and air pollution. Their information was complex and their opinions were not in agreement.

Particulates are the dust-like matter given off by the burning of coal and wood, among other fuels. Pieces as little as 28 times smaller than the width of a human hair can lodge in the lungs and reduce their capacity--a problem of critical concern during periods of air pollution alerts for people with respiratory systems already weakened by disease.

“Substantial evidence exists that fine combustion particles of all types are associated with death, hospital admissions and respirator illness,” said Joel Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist at Harvard University.


The EPA proposal would lower the standard for ozone to 0.08 parts per million when averaged over eight hours from the current 0.12 parts per million averaged in a single hour.

For particulates, the new standard would be that particles smaller than 2.5 microns could not exceed 50 micrograms per cubic liter of air in a day, or a daily average of 15 micrograms per cubic liter on an annual basis.

Under existing law, particles of less than 10 microns cannot exceed 150 micrograms per cubic liter of air in a day or 50 micrograms on an annual daily average.