Every Breath You Take

As the Clean Air Act gathers dust, air pollution is taking a heavy toll on Americans' health

| August 17, 2006

When the Clean Air Act passed in 1970, it was lauded as a resource to protect Americans from repeats of events like the Donora, Pennsylvania, smog of 1948 (pdf file).? The 'killer fog' cleared only after a local zinc plant shut down operations, by which time at least 20 people had died. But while the law was written with such threats in mind, it was also designed to be updated as scientists gained a better understanding air pollution's causes and effects. Writing for the Sierra Club's magazine, Sierra, Monika Bauerlein laments that this process of revision has stalled under the current administration, even as studies link air pollution to myriad serious health problems.

The connection between air pollution and asthma and other respiratory ailments is well-known, but recent studies have shown associations with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, even neurobehavioral disorders like autism. With 30,000 deaths linked to power plant pollution each year, air pollution outranks both murder and drunken driving as causes of death, according to a study by a firm tasked with training employees for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Nationwide, researchers have found correlations between particulate levels and hospitalization or death. As mounting evidence strengthens the argument for tamping down on polluters, Bauerlein writes that the EPA has failed to adapt its regulations and, instead, is 'simply waiting for better evidence.'

As it waits, the Bush administration has continued grandfathering power plants that were operational before the Clean Air Act came into force. As long as a plant doesn't update its equipment, it can remain exempt from air quality laws. '[L]etting pollution continue is far costlier than cleaning it up,' says Bauerlein, but many older plants still opt to 'externalize' costs, avoiding expensive updates, and in turn passing the costs on to neighboring communities in the form of hefty health bills.

These neighborhoods are disproportionately poor, writes Bauerlein, and statistics show families in poverty are twice as likely to have children with asthma. Upwards of 70 percent of Latinos and African-Americans live in counties where the air quality violates federal standards, many living within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Still, air pollution isn't limited to neighborhood boundaries, says Bauerlein, as 'the air we breathe holds residues from every smokestack and tailpipe for miles around.'

Though the situation seems bleak, there is a blueprint for change: the successful campaign to reduce children's exposure to lead. According to a study by Harvard and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that initiative led to a boost in IQ scores among children that will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars in increased productivity over their lifetimes. Researchers believe reducing air pollution would garner similar results. But as with the dangers of cigarette smoke, Bauerlein says, it will be a long road with much opposition before the science supporting air pollution-related ailments is acknowledged by the powers that be. -- Rachel Anderson

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