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Blue Skies, High Anxiety: Our Air Is Cleaner Than It's Been in a Century, Writes Joel Schwartz. So Why Do Americans Worry It's So Dirty and Dangerous?

By Schwartz, Joel | The American (Washington, DC), May-June 2007 | Go to article overview

Blue Skies, High Anxiety: Our Air Is Cleaner Than It's Been in a Century, Writes Joel Schwartz. So Why Do Americans Worry It's So Dirty and Dangerous?


Schwartz, Joel, The American (Washington, DC)


AMERICANS ARE DRIVING more miles, using more energy, and producing more goods and services than ever. But at the same time, the air quality in America's cities is better than it has been in more than a century--despite the fact that the U.S. population has almost quadrupled and real GDP has risen by a factor of nearly thirty.

But Americans aren't aware of this good news--or don't believe it. Polls show the public thinks that air pollution has been steady or even rising over the last few decades, that it will worsen in the future, and that it is still a serious threat to people's health. They are convinced that pollution is a serious problem throughout the country, that it is a major cause of asthma and other respiratory diseases, and that it shortens the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Much of what Americans think they know about air pollution is false. Through exaggeration and sometimes even outright fabrication, the main purveyors of the story--journalists, government regulators, environmentalists, and even health scientists--have created public fear out of all proportion to the actual risks.

Air pollution has been declining for decades across the United States. The chart on page 76 tells the story. Between 1980 and 2005, average levels of air pollution fell between 20 percent and 96 percent, depending on the pollutant. For example, sulfur dioxide, which results mainly from the burning of coal and the smelting of some metals, is down 6a percent, while carbon monoxide, the vast majority of which comes from automobiles, is down 74 percent. At the same time, coal usage increased more than 60 percent and miles of driving nearly doubled.

Virtually the entire nation now meets federal standards for sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and lead. The country is also near full compliance for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's older standards for ozone (the "one-hour" standard) and particulate matter (the "[PM.sub.10]" standard for airborne particulate matter less than ten micrometers in diameter).

Compliance has also greatly improved for the more stringent ozone and PM standards the EPA adopted in 1997. In 1980, about 75 percent of the nation's ozone monitors violated the eight-hour ozone standard, but the rate was down to 18 percent at the end of 2005. About 90 percent of the nation violated the fine particulate matter ([PM.sub.2.5], or airborne PM under 2.5 micrometers in diameter) standard in 1980, but the proportion had dropped to 16 percent by the end of 2005. (For details on all of these standards, see the notes to this article at www.american.com.)

Air pollution will continue to decline. The EPA tightened automobile emission standards in 1994, 2001, and 2004. The last of those rules requires reductions that will cut automobile emissions (including those from SUVs and pickups) by 90 percent below the emissions of the current average car. Even after accounting for expected increases in total miles of driving, the net effect will be a reduction of more than 80 percent in total automobile pollution emissions over the next couple of decades. Emissions from on- and off-road heavy-duty diesel vehicles will follow a similar trajectory as 90 percent reduction requirements come into effect for these vehicles in 2007 and 2010, respectively. Industrial emissions will also continue to fall under the EPA's Clean Air Interstate Rule, which will eliminate most remaining power plant pollution.

Despite the nation's spectacular progress, polls show that most Americans think air pollution has stayed the same or even increased, and will worsen in the future. Typical is a 2004 poll by the Foundation for Clean Air Progress, which found that only 29 percent of respondents believed that "America's air quality is better than ... it was in 1970." Some 38 percent said it was worse, and 31 percent said it was about the same. In fact, by any measurement, air quality is enormously improved.

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Blue Skies, High Anxiety: Our Air Is Cleaner Than It's Been in a Century, Writes Joel Schwartz. So Why Do Americans Worry It's So Dirty and Dangerous?
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