Have you noticed the air pollution decrease in your area? Maybe or maybe not. But the press makes enough noise about poor air quality, even if you had noticed the improved air quality, you’d be fooled into thinking fresh air is on the endangered species list. The EPA is working hard to get air improved from many angles of pollution source, and making good progress.
America’s air quality is much better than it was a century ago, despite the quadrupling of population and a 30-fold increase in gross domestic product. But you’d never know it by just reading newspapers or subscribing to environmental groups’ email lists. In fact, most of the American public believes erroneously — that air pollution is a terrible problem that is getting worse every day, and that little is being done about it. Public perception couldn’t be further from the truth. Let’s talk about the air pollution decrease.
Air pollution has decreased nationwide for decades. Between 1980 and 2005, measured levels of various air pollutants have dropped between 20 and 96 percent, despite major increases in air pollution sources. For example, coal burning has increased 60 percent, and vehicle miles driven have nearly doubled. But sulfur dioxide, produced by smelting and other coal-burning activities, fell 63 percent while carbon monoxide, which comes chiefly from automobiles, is down 74 percent. Virtually the entire nation now meets federal standards for sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and lead.
Those standards are not “lenient” or “outdated”. Indeed, the EPA tightened ozone and particulate matter standards significantly in 1997. Despite tougher standards, more areas are in compliance than ever before. In 1980, about 75 percent of the nation’s ozone monitoring sites violated the eight-hour ozone standard, but the rate was down to 18 percent at the end of 2005. About 16 percent of the nation violated the fine particulate matter standard at the end of 2005, compared to 90 percent in 1980.
The EPA is not easing up on air pollution. It tightened automobile emission standards in 1994, 2001, and 2004. The newest rule will cut emissions from automobiles (including SUVs and pickups) by 90 percent below the emissions of today’s average car. Even as total miles driven continue to increase, the net effect will be an 80 percent reduction in total automobile pollution emissions over the next 20 years. On- and off-road heavy-duty diesel vehicles will have to reduce their air pollution emissions by 90 percent starting in 2007 and 2010, respectively. The EPA’s Clean Air Interstate Rule will eliminate most remaining power plant air pollution.
Despite these facts, a 2004 public opinion poll reported that only 29 percent of Americans believe “America’s air quality is better than…it was in 1970”. Another 38 percent think it is worse, and 31 percent think it’s about the same. Most Americans believe that air pollution will get worse in the future, despite nearly unanimous trends to the contrary in hard data.
The disparity between reality and public perception of air pollution is created by special interest groups and amplified by the news media, which promulgate the special interests’ biased press releases without checking objective source data. The media makes bad news sound worse than it is, and minimizes or totally ignores good news about air pollution decreases.
Sometimes, outright lies are published by special interest groups and the media. In November 2001, the Sierra Club shrieked, “Smog is out of control in almost all of our major cities” right after the EPA reported two record-low years in a row for both ozone and fine particulate matter. In 2002, on the heels of a fourth consecutive record-low year for fine particulate matter, the Public Interest Research Group published a report which falsely claimed that air pollution component was increasing. Despite a 70-plus percent reduction in days exceeding the eight-hour ozone standard from 1973 to 2003, The Washington Post declared in 2004 that “ozone pollution has declined slightly over the past 30 years” (emphasis added). USA Today claimed Americans in 2003 drove “vehicles that give off more pollution than the cars they drove in the ’80s”, despite actually enormous declines in automobile emissions during that period.
Ratings of the “worst” air pollution zones reliably sell newspapers, but they are utterly misleading. Riverside, California, has the highest fine particulate matter level in the country, but that level has been slashed in half since the 1980s even as Riverside’s population more than doubled.
Air pollution levels, no matter how low they go, are blamed for tens of thousands of annual deaths from respiratory diseases. But a recent article in the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology concluded, “It remains the case that no form of ambient [particulate matter] — other than viruses, bacteria, and biochemical antigenshas been shown, experimentally or clinically, to cause disease or death at concentrations remotely close to U.S. ambient levels.” The EPA and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) have published studies projecting that the elimination of all human-caused ozone air pollution would result in only a 1 to 2 percent decline in emergency room visits for asthma attacks.
In short, there is no scientific evidence that air pollution is sickening or killing anyone, or that there is any compelling public health need to reduce air pollution further.
Shouldn’t environmentalists receive credit for the EPA and the Clean Air Act of 1970 and these happy results? Well, something has done their job, but not necessarily them. Air pollution was actually declining for decades before 1970, when the Clean Air Act and the EPA came into being. Even Los Angeles’ ozone levels have been declining steadily since the 1950s. Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York all have records of declining particulate matter air pollution going back to the 1930s and 1940s.
Problem-solving is the mind’s favorite activity. When a problem is too simple and small to fully occupy the mind, the problem is made more complex and larger than it really is. If no problem exists, the mind often creates one to keep itself — and self-appointed air pollution problem-solvers — fully employed. Is that why few are noticing the air pollution decrease? Or is it our failing memories?