Every Breath You Take

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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Every Breath You Take

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