Breathe Easy, But Not for Long

America’s air quality continues to get better. A recently released Environmental Protection Agency report concludes that "since 1970, aggregate emissions of six principal pollutants tracked nationally have been cut 29 percent."

This good news may come as a surprise to most people. We may be exposed to cleaner air, but we’re also exposed to the drumbeat of gloomy media accounts to the contrary. However, the reality that air pollution is declining needs to be taken into account in current debates over costly new air quality measures.

The 1970 Clean Air Act contains provisions designed to reduce ambient levels of six so-called criteria pollutants – nitrogen dioxide, ground-level ozone (the primary constituent of smog), sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and lead. According to the EPA’s "Latest Findings on National Air Quality: 2000 Status and Trends," all six have undergone significant declines. There are still problems, especially with smog in certain parts of the country, but the overall trends are quite promising.

These improvements occurred over a span in which:

  • US gross domestic product (GDP) increased 158 percent
  • Vehicle miles traveled increased 143 percent
  • Energy consumption increased 45 percent
  • Population increased 36 percent

From these numbers it would seem economic growth is clearly not the enemy of air quality, and will not stand in the way of further improvements.

These air quality gains will likely continue into the future, as regulations currently on the books are implemented. For example, today’s motor vehicles, which are the main source of smog-forming compounds, are 25 times cleaner than their 1970s counterparts and are still improving. "Turnover of the fleet to vehicles that start cleaner and stay cleaner will continue to drive down smog in the coming decades," says Joel Schwartz, Senior Scientist with the Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Institute.

Now the Bad News.

Despite all this good news, polls show that most Americans believe air quality is deteriorating. Little wonder, given the near monopoly on news coverage given to the pessimistic claims from advocacy organizations. For example, the American Lung Association’s well-publicized "State of the Air 2001" gave report card-style grades on air quality, and flunked more than half of the nation’s counties and cities. And the Natural Resources Defense Council has grabbed headlines with its questionable assertion that 64,000 Americans die annually from exposure to soot in the air. Too bad the EPA’s good news won’t get nearly as much coverage.

It is important to bridge the gap between the pessimistic perception and optimistic reality of air quality. Acting on the erroneous assumption that current laws and regulations are inadequate, Congress and the administration have proposed a number of costly new air quality measures. This includes so-called multi-pollutant proposals that would crack down on power plant emissions, as well as new motor fuel requirements. The most extreme of these proposals could drive up the cost of electricity and increase the severity of the gasoline price spikes seen in recent summers – all for a problem already on its way towards resolution.

No one is suggesting a repeal of the many air quality standards already on the books. But further measures, especially those that come with a high price tag, should be evaluated in light of the positive air quality trends currently underway.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.