Panel says link between smog and premature death is clear

By H. JOSEF HEBERT, Associated Press Writer Tue Apr 22, 11:57 AM ET

WASHINGTON – Short-term exposure to smog, or ozone, is clearly linked to premature deaths that should be taken into account when measuring the health benefits of reducing air pollution, a National Academy of Sciences report concluded Tuesday.

The findings contradict arguments made by some White House officials that the connection between smog and premature death has not been shown sufficiently, and that the number of saved lives should not be calculated in determining clean air benefits.

The report by a panel of the Academy’s National Research Council says government agencies "should give little or no weight" to such arguments.

"The committee has concluded from its review of health-based evidence that short-term exposure to ambient ozone is likely to contribute to premature deaths," the 13-member panel said.

It added that "studies have yielded strong evidence that short-term exposure to ozone can exacerbate lung conditions, causing illness and hospitalization and can potentially lead to death."

The White House Office of Management and Budget, which in its review of air quality regulations has raised questions about the certainty of the pollution and mortality link, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

"The report is a rebuke of the Bush administration which has consistently tried to downplay the connection between smog and premature death," said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based advocacy organization.

Vickie Patton, deputy general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the Academy’s findings "refutes the White House skepticism and denial" of a proven link between acute ozone exposure and premature deaths. Such arguments have been used to diminish the health benefits of reducing air pollution, she said.

The Academy panel examined short-term exposure — up to 24 hours — to high levels of ozone, but said more studies also were needed on long-term chronic exposure where the risk of premature death "may be larger than those observed in acute effects studies alone."

Ground-level ozone is formed from nitrogen oxide and organic compounds created by burning fossil fuels and is demonstrated often by the yellow haze or smog that lingers in the air. Ozone exposure is a leading cause of respiratory illnesses and especially affects the elderly, those with respiratory problems and children.

While premature death from ozone exposure is greater among individuals with lung and heart disease, the report said such deaths are not restricted to people who are at a high risk of death within a few days.

The scientists said they could not determine, based on a review of health studies, whether there is a threshold below which no fatalities can be assured from ozone exposure. If there is such a point, it is below the ozone levels allowed for public health.

Environmentalists and health advocates have argued that a string of health studies and surveys show that exposure to smoggy air not only aggravates respiratory problems, but causes thousands of deaths a year.

But in a number of instances the EPA and the White House Office of Management and Budget, which reviews regulations, have been at odds over the certainty of a link between smog levels and deaths.

Patton said the OMB in a number of air pollution regulations has sought to minimize the relationship of pollution and premature deaths, resulting in a lower calculation of health benefits from pollution reductions.

"This has been used by industry to try to attack health standards by minimizing the societal benefits," said Patton.

One such case involves the EPA’s decision last month to toughen the ozone health standard, reducing the allowable concentration in the air.

When the cost-benefit analysis was being prepared in connection with the rulemaking, the OMB argued there is "considerable uncertainty" in the association between ozone levels and deaths.

As a result, the EPA issued a wide cost-benefit range from an annual net societal cost of $20 billion to a savings of $23 billion, depending largely on whether one takes into account lives saved from ozone-related premature deaths.

OMB officials also have objected to the EPA quantifying ozone-related mortality benefits in new emissions standards for lawn mowers and other small engines that release large amounts of ozone-forming pollution.

In response, the EPA removed "all references to quantified ozone benefits" in the proposed rule, according to an e-mail sent by EPA to the OMB. The small engine regulation is awaiting final action.


 O’SHAUGHNESSY: Would it kill you to walk inside?


It’s 8:12 a.m. at my local Dunkin’ Donuts and nine vehicles are idling in the drive-thru lane. Nearly two-thirds are SUVs, elephantine beasts belching malodorous effluent into suburbia. I have my eyes on one car, a Mini-Cooper as it happens, sandwiched in between a Toyota Highlander and a Ford Explorer.

I want to know how long this hapless Cooper is going to wait for his cup o’ Joe.

The Cooper waits 7 minutes and 38 seconds.

Not long after, I drive to the same Dunkin’ Donuts, park my car, set my brake, walk in, get a medium coffee with cream, walk out, start my ignition and pull out of the parking lot.

It takes me 1 minute and 36 seconds.

Why, one might reasonably ask, would an able-bodied person sit on their duff for nearly 10 minutes for a cruller, when they could simply park the car, jump out and receive prompt and efficient service?

I’m sure there are lots of perfectly reasonable reasons, but how about this one: Because you are a lazy slug.

Welcome to America, a drive-thru, sit-on-your-can, stuff-your-face Arcadia of indulgence. Drive-thrus, for years the province of fast-food-restaurants that encouraged you to shout your order into cartoon characters’ gullets, are now the sine qua non of the retail world. More than 80 percent of Walgreen stores offer them, the company says. In Cheshire, CVS is closing a perfectly acceptable strip-mall CVS so it can build a stand-alone, big box pharmacy with — you guessed it — a drive thru.

The drive-thru is the retail equivalent of Internet shopping. It coddles consumers who don’t want to be inconvenienced by the onerous task of stopping their engine, getting out of their cars and moving 25 feet. Of the 56,500 pharmacies in the U.S., 10,600 now have drive-thrus, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores says. Five years ago, that number was 8,250. Some 50 percent of Dunkin Donuts’ 414 stores in Connecticut are drive-thru. Starbucks recently announced that it, too, was going to offer drive-thrus. McDonalds has 13,000 restaurants across the U.S. and 90 percent have drive-thrus. The number of drive-thrus has doubled in the last five years.

"I don’t like getting out of the car," Victoria Vollaire told USA Today. She spends $400 a month at the In-N-Out Burger stand in Ontario, Calif. More than half of the $129 billion we spend on fast food is sucked in through the drive-thru.

And how much is gas a gallon?

By some estimates, Americans waste nearly 3.8 million gallons of gasoline a year just idling their cars, reports the Hinkle Charitable Foundation. Depending on gas prices, a driver spends more than $200 idling only 10 minutes a day.

When I was a kid we lived next to an old woman named Mrs. Crossman, who would routinely start her Plymouth Valiant at 7 a.m., putter inside for a cup of coffee and come outside eight minutes later, when the car had "warmed up." Some people still believe their cars need to idle interminably before they can hit their foot on the accelerator.

Not anymore. With electronic ignition, turning your car off and on repeatedly does not wear out the battery or the starter or waste gas.

It’s always better to shut a warmed-up car off and restart, says Catherine C. Milbourn, of the Environmental Protection Agency. "As a practical matter, with the price of gasoline, wow, I wouldn’t want to idle for 7 minutes."

Look, it’s a simple equation. Gas is flirting with the $4 a gallon mark. We’re living in a country in which 62 percent of adults and 34 percent of children are overweight or obese. Getting out of the car is not going to give you 6-pack abs or the hips of a nymph. But it will force you to get a modicum of exercise, open the possibility that you might have a human encounter, save you money in gas — and, oh yeah, reduce all that exhaust going into the environment.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell famously would like us to do "one thing" to save our environment. How about this one: Use your head.


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Mayor proposes drive-thru tax

Posted By W. Brice McVicar

The City of Belleville could be motoring its way toward a new form of taxation.

Mayor Neil Ellis told The Intelligencer he hopes to introduce a resolution at the April 14 council meeting to create a tax aimed at motorists who use drive-thrus. Under the proposed tax, every purchase would have an additional five per cent tax with the funds being returned to the city.

"What I plan on doing is bringing it to council to endorse," the mayor said. "From there it will have to be sent to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario for endorsement and then it would have to go to the province."

Ellis said the tax could be labelled a "sin tax" as motorists have the option of parking their vehicle and going inside the establishment as opposed to allowing their car to idle as they wait in line. This means only those who choose to use a drive-thru would be paying the additional five per cent.

Like other municipalities in Ontario, Belleville has limited access to revenue with property taxes being the bulk provider. A drive-thru tax could supplement income and assist the city with its aging infrastructure, the mayor said.

"Waiting for funding from the province every year has to change. Other municipalities like Toronto have other forms of taxes and my sense is property taxes can’t keep growing and growing, so we either have a form of uploading to the government or we find new ways to get funding," he said. "This is funding that will come directly back to us and it’ll probably remain stable because when you look at the number of people who are buying a hamburger or a coffee or a meal… You could almost judge every year what you’re going to get."

The mayor said he has not discussed the idea with each member of council though some have been polled on the idea. Those he has talked with, he said, were receptive to the new tax.

He expects others will be too.

"They know as council we need another form of revenue. When you look at all of our infrastructure needs it’s obvious we need more," he said.

A need for more revenue is understood by city resident Dan Patterson but collecting it from those who may be in a rush seems questionable, he said.

"I pay enough in my property taxes, don’t I?" Patterson asked while waiting in line at a Tim Hortons drive-thru. "I shouldn’t be expected to pay more because I don’t want to go in a store."