Let’s Clear The Air About Air Pollution Levels

America's air quality continues to get better, with particularly strong progress in the Chicago area. A recently released Environmental Protection Agency report concludes that “since 1970, aggregate emissions of six principal pollutants tracked nationally have been cut 29 percent.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

And Chicago, which once stood out as one of the nation's smoggiest cities, is now in compliance with the federal smog standard.

This good news might come as a surprise to most people. We might 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 just-released Latest Findings on National Air Quality: 2000 Status and Trends, all six have undergone significant declines.

There are still problems, particularly with smog in parts of California, but the overall trends are quite promising.

In Chicago, the progress has been particularly striking. Ten years ago, the city had the distinction of being one of the nine smoggiest metropolitan areas in the nation, triggering a number of onerous requirements under the Clean Air Act. But today, Chicago meets the federal smog standard.

The nationwide improvements took place over a 30-year span in which U.S. gross domestic product increased 158 percent, vehicle miles traveled increased 143 percent, energy consumption increased 45 percent and population increased 36 percent. Similarly, Illinois' economy has grown by 60 percent since 1970. Past growth has proven not to be the enemy of air quality, and continued growth should not stand in the way of further improvements.

These air-quality gains will continue into the future, as regulations currently on the books continue to be implemented. For example, today's motor vehicles, 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,” said Joel Schwartz, senior scientist with the Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Institute.

Nonetheless, 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, including Cook County. 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 EPA's good news didn't get nearly as much coverage.

It is important to bridge the gap between the pessimistic perception and optimistic reality of air quality. Seemingly acting on the 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 multipollutant proposals that would crack down on power plant emissions, as well as some new motor fuel requirements.

The most extreme of these measures could drive up the cost of electricity in the area and increase the severity of the gasoline price spikes seen in recent summers–all for a problem already on its way toward 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 under way.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected].

Copyright © 2001 Chicago Sun Times