The Health Effects and Costs of Air Pollution

The Health Effects and Costs of Air Pollution

Air-pollution-Wikimedia-469x281By Leighton Walter Kille and

If you’d like to start a lively discussion at a politically diverse gathering, a good way is to bring up the potential benefits and costs of environmental regulations. The current political divide in the United States pretty much guarantees that soon you’ll be hearing supporters defending “common-sense laws” on one side while detractors denounce “job-killing taxes” on the other.

It’s hard to remember, but environmental regulations weren’t always an invitation to angry debate and Congressional gridlock. The Clean Air Act of 1970 was signed into law by President Richard Nixon and gave the Environmental Protection Agency (created under the same administration) the authority to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants from fixed and mobile sources. Two decades later President George H.W. Bush spearheaded the expansion of the Clean Air Act, giving the EPA authority to tackle ozone depletion and establishing a market-based approach to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, a contributor to acid rain. The 1990 amendments also created incentives to promote the use of natural gas and the development of biofuels.

According to the EPA, these laws have produced significant progress across a wide range of pollutants: Between 1990 to 2002, emissions of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, sul­fur dioxide and nitrogen oxides dropped between 17% to 44%; over the same period, mercury emissions dropped 52%. And between 1970 and 2002, lead emissions have been cut by 99%. And across all 188 air toxics, emissions have decreased between 1990 and 2002.

Addressing newer threats such as climate change have been more elusive, however, in part because of increasing partisan polarization and in part because of changes in the environmental movement. The 2007 Climate Security Act, which would have established a carbon cap-and-trade program, never made it out of Congress. But in October 2015, the EPA strengthened the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground-level ozone to 70 parts per billion, a change the federal agency considered especially important for children and people with asthma. The EPA also aims to reduce air pollution from passenger cars and trucks by setting new vehicle emissions standards and lowering the sulfur content of gasoline beginning in 2017. Despite significant human costs — a 2013 study calculated that approximately 200,000 early deaths occur every year in the United States because of air pollution — every change is difficult and the fate of such regulations is often decided in the courts.

Below is a selection of studies on a range of issues related to air pollution. It has sections on the health effects, economic costs and automotive causes of air pollution. For journalists who write about pollution regularly, the EPA has compiled a collection of online information, including glossaries, about specific air pollutants, including asbestos, lead and chlorofluorocarbons.

Source: Journalists Resources