Clean little secret

If all things we normally associate with air pollution grow — a robust economy and more people and workers consuming more energy and driving more vehicles more miles — we should have more air pollution, right?

Wrong.

Government data since 1970 (the year the Clean Air Act amendment was enacted) clearly paints a portrait of a healthy and growing economy: 42 percent more people and 95 percent more workers using 43 percent more energy, driving 111 percent more vehicles 151 percent more miles and a 175 percent boost in real gross domestic product. And yet the Environmental Protection Agency documents that America’s air is dramatically cleaner and healthier.

The Clean Air Act charged EPA with finding and tackling the pollutants that posed the greatest threat to human health. EPA identified six — lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, ozone (smog) and particulates (soot or dust) — that met that criteria. Using sound epidemiological and other data, the agency then set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for each. Although we didn’t have many air quality monitors back then, Americans were routinely exposed to unhealthy levels of each of the six “criteria” pollutants.

What a difference three decades makes. In 2001 and 2002, you couldn’t find any place in the United States with unhealthy levels of nitrogen oxides or sulfur dioxide. You could stumble upon three remote counties (out of 3,132 nationwide) where the lead standard was exceeded (all three have lead smelters). And you could also visit three counties where the carbon monoxide standard was exceeded. But you better hurry — all three were localized problems that have been or are being addressed.

There are still too many areas that exceed health standards for ozone and particulates, but there’s positive news with those pollutants as well. Although new, tighter health standards established in 1997 and just recently taking effect have increased the number of Code Red days for ozone and particulates, both pollutants have been dramatically reduced.

With regard to ozone, while only 5 percent of the population breathed air that met the previously set 1-hour NAAQS in 1980, more than 70 percent do today. And in “nonattainment areas,” the hours of exceedance has dropped by 75-80 percent for the 1-hour standard (55-60 percent for the 8-hour standard) since 1980. Stated differently, the average nonattainment area exceeds the 1-hour health standard for 8 of the 8,760 hours in a year (and 58 hours a year for the 8-hour standard). Finally, the severity of exceedances has been reduced by 70-75 percent for the 1-hour standard (and by 70 percent for the 8-hour standard) since 1980.

Good data particulates only became available in the 1990s, but still we’ve seen progress. Particulates emissions from combustion (cars, factories and powerplants) has been slashed 82 percent since 1970. In nonattainment areas, far fewer Americans today are exposed to unhealthy annual levels of particulates than in 1990.

Continued progress is expected into the foreseeable future. One example: Cleaner diesel engines and the 2007 ultra-clean diesel fuels will cut sulfur emissions more than 95 percent.

Unfortunately, this impressive and unequaled environmental progress is America’s clean little secret. A poll conducted from Aug. 20-23, 2004 for the Foundation for Clean Air Progress found 7 in 10 Americans believe air pollution has either worsened or stayed about the same since 1970.

Air quality improvements haven’t ebbed and flowed with presidents or Congresses. Clean air isn’t a Democratic or a Republican idea. Business today understands improving the environment is good business. Industry trade associations have even made pollution-reduction programs like the American Chemistry Council’s “Responsible Care” a condition of association membership.

There’s always more to do to clean our air, but it’s important for policymakers to recognize how far we’ve come as they tackle the never-ending challenge of setting priorities and allocating scarce resources to address them.

William Fay is a member of the 60 Plus Association’s Business Advisory Committee and president of the Foundation for Clean Air Progress, a business community nonprofit, public information organization on air quality issues.

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