In October 1948 the small industrial town of Donora, Pennsylvania, experienced one of the worst cases of air pollution in the history of the United States. Sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and metal dust descended from nearby zinc smelter smokestacks and were trapped by stagnant air. The result was a thick, poisonous cloud that blanketed the town for five days. At that time, most people were still unaware of the potentially deadly health effects of deadly air pollution; it was viewed mainly as a nuisance. So, although the residents of Donora could barely see through the smoggy air, they continued with their daily routines as much as possible, oblivious to the danger they were in. It was not until the smog lifted, leaving twentyone people dead and six thousand people—a third of the town’s population— sick or hospitalized, that many began to realize that air pollution was more than a nuisance.
The Donora catastrophe and similar incidents elsewhere during the mid–twentieth century changed the way many people thought about air pollution. As they began to see overwhelming evidence of the connection between air pollution and illness, Americans began to realize that poor air quality threatened their health and that, for their protection, emissions needed to be monitored and controlled. The result has been a succession of regulations designed to monitor and control air quality in the United States. Unfortunately, these regulations have been at the center of a heated debate between those concerned about human health and the environment and those in American industry.
In 1970 Congress passed the landmark Clean Air Act, which has formed the basis of the nation’s efforts to control air pollution. The act gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to establish and enforce National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The EPA monitors emissions of the six major air pollutants—ozone, particulate matter (such as dust, dirt, smoke, and soot), carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur, and lead. The Clean Air Act also charges the EPA with periodically reviewing the latest scientific studies regarding air pollution and reaffirming or modifying the standards as necessary to protect the public’s health. The act was amended with more stringent emissions standards in 1977, 1990, and 1997.
As a result of the Clean Air Act, air quality has improved greatly in the United States since the 1970s. According to the EPA’s 2003 air quality report, aggregate emissions of the six major pollutants have decreased 48 percent since 1970. This improvement has occurred despite a 42 percent increase in energy consumption and a 155 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled. Yet, according to the American Lung Association, in 2003 more than half the American population continued to breathe polluted air that was harmful to their health. In 2002 Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts of the Earth Policy Institute found that the death toll from air pollution is high. He states:
In the United States, traffic fatalities total just over 40,000 per year, while air pollution claims 70,000 lives annually. U.S. air pollution deaths are equal to deaths from breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. This scourge of cities in industrial and developing countries alike threatens the health of billions of people. . . . While deaths from heart disease and respiratory illness from breathing polluted air may lack the drama of deaths from an automobile crash, with flashing lights and sirens, they are no less real.
There is sound evidence from hundreds of studies conducted worldwide that polluted air has adverse effects on health. Its effects range from mild respiratory irritation to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. In developing nations, where air quality is frequently poor, the link between air pollution and health is often obvious. In China, the air quality in many cities is so bad that simply breathing is the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and respiratory diseases from air pollution are a leading cause of death. When asked to draw the sky, many Chinese children choose a gray or yellow crayon.
However, in the United States, where the sky is usually blue, and air quality has improved dramatically in recent years, the connection between air pollution and health is less clear. There is widespread debate over whether air quality is currently threatening the health of Americans. Some researchers are finding evidence of serious health problems from increasingly small pollution particles. In an August 2003 issue of Science News, Janet Raloff reviews the results of a number of air pollution studies, finding that “community death rates rise and fall nearly in lock-step with local changes of tiny dust particles—even when concentrations of those particles are just one-quarter of the federal limit for outdoor air.” However, other researchers argue that there is no scientific evidence for such claims, and contend that air pollution is not a problem in the United States. Gregg Easterbrook, of the Brookings Institution, an organization devoted to research and analysis of public policy, states that the quality of U.S. air is so good that it should be “a national cause for celebration.”
Disagreements about whether or not air pollution is currently threatening Americans’ health fuels the debate over how air quality should be regulated. Emissions reductions can be extremely expensive for industry and, ultimately, the consumer. Regulatory agencies face the difficult task of weighing the potential health benefits of regulation against the costs to industry and finding the most desirable balance between the two.
Many people are critical of current regulations, claiming that the costs of the EPA’s anti-pollution measures far outweigh the benefits. They argue that the huge expenses of implementing increasingly stringent standards impede technological innovation and hinder industry productivity, seriously harming the U.S. economy while only slightly benefiting the health of the American population. According to associate professor of economics Craig S. Marksen, in the Summer 2000 issue of the Independent Review,
The Clean Air Act and its amendments force the EPA to mandate reduction of air pollution to levels that would have no adverse health effects on even the most sensitive person in the population. The EPA relentlessly presses forward on its absurd quest, like a madman setting fire to his house in an insane determination to eliminate the last of the insects infesting it.
Critics of regulation charge that the EPA has squandered billions of dollars, with negligible results, and that the U.S. population would have experienced far greater benefits if this money were spent elsewhere.
Others contend that current regulation is not stringent enough. They maintain that human health is more important than industry profits and needs to be better protected. In a September 2003 statement, John Kirkwood, president and chief executive of the American Lung Association, states:
Reams of scientific studies have shown conclusively that air pollution causes increased asthma attacks, emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and increased risk of death. A study conducted three years ago estimated that tens of thousands of Americans are dying prematurely each year because of our failure to clean up [industrial] facilities. Emerging research is linking pollution to lung cancer, birth defects, strokes and heart attacks. What is lacking is the commitment of the [Bush] administration to clean air and the health of Americans.
Proponents of stronger regulation argue that the development of new, cleaner technologies is usually less expensive than the prohibitive costs often claimed by industry.
In 2003 the debate over clean air regulation continued as the administration under President George W. Bush advocated controversial reforms to air pollution regulation. One significant change was to the New Source Review (NSR) provisions of the Clean Air Act. Under NSR, power plants built before 1977 must install modern pollution-control equipment when they expand or upgrade their facilities beyond routine maintenance. However, under a 2003 reform to the rules, some plants will be able to make modifications to their facilities without being subject to new emissions standards. The less-stringent rules also mean that the EPA will be forced to drop a number of current investigations of power plant violations of the Clean Air Act. The changes to NSR provoked heated debate from many different groups. Proponents of the reforms argue that it is possible to reduce emissions without hurting business, and that these amendments will allow industry the flexibility it needs to reduce pollution and contribute to a strong economy. Critics argue that the Bush administration favors industry over the environment, and that the modifications constitute a weakening of pollution regulation and will significantly increase air pollution.
Arguments such as these have been voiced since the beginning of emissions monitoring and regulation in the United States. Today there is still no uncontested strategy to clean the air to the satisfaction of health experts and environmentalists while easing the regulatory burden sufficiently in the eyes of industry. In the ongoing effort to balance the costs and benefits of regulation, there is continued disagreement over how to measure the value of human health and the value of economic growth, and how to create a regulatory balance that effectively protects them both. The authors in At Issue: Is Air Pollution a Serious Threat to Health? present various opinions on the effect of air pollution on health in the United States and around the world and debate ways to address pollution problems.
Did this raise a question for you?