Still, under pressure from big business, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson left the door open to keeping the rules as they are.
It's the Environmental Protection Agency's first new recommendation since 1997 for ground-level ozone, the principal component of smog — that noxious combination of car exhaust, industrial emissions and gasoline vapors aggravated by summertime sun and heat.
Johnson recommended reducing current smog standards by 11 percent to 17 percent. Among other benefits, EPA estimated this could reduce by 30 percent to 60 percent the risk of children having trouble breathing normally.
"Based upon the current science I have concluded that the current standard is insufficient to protect public health," Johnson told reporters on a conference call, noting that ozone can harm the lungs and aggravate asthma.
But there was also criticism that the EPA did not go far enough, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews. The current ozone standard — which one expert compares to sandpaper in the lungs — allows the air to have 80 parts per billion of ozone; the proposed EPA reduction calls for 70 to 75. However, an expert panel advising the EPA called for a much lower standard of 60 to 70. Not only did the agency reject that advice, it invited industry to argue for keeping the current standard at 80.
"It means that there is a lot of pressure to keep the standard exactly where it is, to keep it at levels that currently we know do not protect public health," said Janice Nolen, vice president of the American Lung Association
Studies have linked increased ozone levels with higher hospital admissions.
In the emergency department of the Children's Hospital in Oakland, Calif., for example, some 5,000 children a year come in for, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.
Studies done by researchers at Yale and Johns Hopkins show that smog can kill, adds Blackstone. In the 95 major urban areas studied, an increase in daily ozone levels was associated with more than 3,700 additional deaths each year from cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.
The EPA will release an impact analysis of its proposal in a few weeks that will detail health benefits and economic costs.
The agency will take public comment for 90 days and settle on a final number by March 12, 2008. However, it also is soliciting comments on alternate standards, including keeping the current one or going down to 60 parts per billion.
Environmentalists criticized the EPA's decision to consider keeping the current standard, noting that the agency's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee has said the standard should be no higher than 70 parts per billion.
That's also the health standard California established independently last year, though the state's standard has no regulatory impact.
"The science overwhelmingly supports closing the door on the current standard once and for all," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "Instead of listening to science, the administrator seems to be intent on listening to the wish lists of polluting industries."
Business and industry groups including the National Association of Manufacturers have been lobbying for the smog standard to stay the same, contending that lowering it would be costly and unnecessary. Although EPA says ozone levels have dropped 21 percent nationwide since 1980, states are still working to meet the smog levels set in 1997 because doing so takes years.
"We recognize that the EPA has a duty to protect public health, and studies have shown implementing the current standard will do just that," said NAM President John Engler. "There is still a long way to go to meeting the current standard. Therefore we see no reason to revise the current standard."
Johnson was asked repeatedly to explain why he would accept comment on keeping a standard that he himself, a career scientist, has determined doesn't adequately protect health. Environmentalists contended industry lobbying was the reason, but Johnson didn't respond directly to that allegation.
"Based upon the science, I do not believe there is scientific justification for retaining the current standard. Hence I am proposing to toughen the standard," he said. "But I am taking comment on the full range of what I have heard people ask for."
The EPA, which monitors 639 counties nationwide, says 104 of them are out of compliance with the current standard. If the standard went to 75 parts per billion, 398 counties would be out of compliance; if it went to 70 parts per billion, 533 counties would be out of compliance.
States with noncompliance areas must come up with implementation plans to come into compliance or face a loss of federal highway funds. Most of the problem areas are in California, Texas, the Atlanta area, the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic and the Upper Midwest.
Ozone levels measured between 2003-2005, the most recent period for which EPA data was available, show many areas that are compliant with the current levels would be out of compliance with the proposed ones. For example, the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area of New York State recorded 82 parts per billion; Fort Wayne, Ind., 83 parts per billion; and Phoenix-Mesa, Ariz., 84 parts per billion.
Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is supposed to review standards on ozone and other pollutants every five years. When that didn't happen five years ago, a lawsuit by the American Lung Association led to a settlement between EPA and advocacy groups to propose revised levels for smog. Thursday was the deadline for that proposal to be offered.