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Texas Chief Toxicologist Says Stay Indoors to Avoid Ozone Pollution

In a blog post on a government environmental agency website Dr. Michael Honeycutt blasted US Environmental Protection Agency push to limit ozone pollution.
October 22, 2014, 11:40pm
Image via AP/David J. Phillip

In the latest iteration of a Texas public official denying the negative effects of harmful pollutants on people and the environment, the state's chief toxicologist, Dr. Michael Honeycutt, said that since people spend most of their time indoors there's no reason to be concerned about dangerous levels of ozone, a pollutant that contributes to the formation of smog.

"Ozone is an outdoor air pollutant, because systems such as air conditioning remove it from indoor air," he wrote in an article for the newsletter of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). "Since most people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, we (and the people in the epidemiology studies used to justify lowering the standard) are rarely exposed to significant levels of ozone."

TCEQ is the state agency responsible for safeguarding public health and protecting the environment.

Honeycutt's article comes in response to a recommendation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the allowable level of ozone be reduced from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to between 70 and 60 ppb. The agency's 597-page scientific report on ozone pollutioncites studies that show even a 70 ppb concentration can be harmful to the respiratory system and decrease lung function.

'That is not a scientific approach.'

Despite the EPA's report, the TCEQ is paying a Massachusetts-based research firm $300,000 to analyze the potential effects of ozone on asthma.

In the TCEQ newsletter, Honeycutt argues that because asthma diagnoses are increasing at the same time that air quality is improving in the US, the number of asthma cases has nothing to do with the amount of ozone in the atmosphere. He also says that asthma admissions in Texas hospitals are highest in the winter, when ozone levels are at their lowest.

"That is not a scientific approach," Loren Raun, a researcher at Houston's Rice University, told VICE News. "Until you are looking at the fraction [of asthma] that is associated with pollution, those statistics don't make any sense. It's anecdotal at best."

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Raun and her colleague Katherine Ensor have conducted several studies on the effects of ozone on health, including one focused on asthma. Their research showed that ozone is indeed a trigger for asthma. They found that even when concentrations of ozone were well below federal standards it still caused acute asthma attacks in Houston.

Richard Corsi, an engineering professor at the University of Texas, who has devoted years to studying indoor air quality, told VICE News that it's true that Americans spend most of our lives inside buildings, but ozone doesn't stop at the door.Depending on the construction of the building, ozone levels might be 5 percent of what they are outside — or as much as 70 percent.

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More importantly, he told VICE News, ozone is highly reactive. When it makes contact with materials and chemicals inside buildings and homes, it creates other chemicals, many of which are toxins like formaldehyde and irritants that can affect the respiratory system. So, even if one stays inside, ozone remains difficult to escape.

Honeycutt's opposition to government intervention in the market place echoes that of other leading Texas politicians. Governor Rick Perry called the Obama Administration's proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants "the most direct assault yet on the energy providers that employ thousands of Americans, and fuel both our homes and our nation's economic growth."  And current gubernatorial candidate Gregory Abbott has sued the EPA over two dozen times during his tenure as Texas Attorney General.

"I'm often asked, wouldn't it be easier to just accept what the EPA does? Isn't it a lot of trouble to try to affect the direction of the EPA's 16,000 employees and $8 billion budget? Yes, of course that would be easier, but it wouldn't be the right thing to do," said Honeycutt.

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