A Breath of Fresh Air

With all the attention paid to carbon pollution and global warming these days, it’s easy to forget the importance of traditional air pollutants like ozone smog, lead and fine particulates. They don’t threaten to disrupt ecosystems worldwide, but they still cause sickness and even death, as well as billions of dollars in damage to crops and structures.

While carbon pollution continues its inexorable rise, regulation of other air pollutants is a major, and sometimes unheralded, success story.

A new EPA report, “Our Nation’s Air: Status and Trends Through 2008,” shows marked and sometimes dramatic improvements in nationwide air quality, thanks to laws that require cleaner cars, industries and consumer products.

Compared to 1990, air pollution in 2008 was lower in six major categories:

  • Ozone (ground level): down 14 percent
  • Particulates (<10 microns): down 31 percent
  • Lead: down 78 percent.
  • Nitrogen oxide: down 35 percent
  • Carbon monoxide: down 68 percent.
  • Sulfur dioxide: down 59 percent.

The decline in sulfur dioxide emissions, driven in part by the acid rain program and controls on coal-burning utilities, has improved water quality in lakes and streams and improved visibility in many scenic areas by reducing haze.

In addition, total emissions of toxic air pollutants such as benzene, xylenes and tuluene, some of which are suspected carcinogens, have fallen some 40 percent since 1990, thanks to controls on chemical plants, dry cleaners, incinerators and other sources.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement. In 2008, more than 119 million people lived in counties where ozone levels exceeded national standards, exposing their lungs and throats to irritation and inflammation. Nearly 37 million lived in areas that exceeded national standards for fine particulates, which can lodge in the lungs or bloodstream and kill people prematurely.

The EPA report also notes that annual U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases increased 17 percent from 1990 to 2007—with serious implications for local air quality as well as climate change.

In 2007, the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that “future climate change may cause significant air quality degradation by changing the dispersion rate of pollutants; the chemical environment for ozone and particle pollution generation; and the strength of emissions from the biosphere, fires, and dust.”

Bottom line: Our nation’s success in reducing local air pollutants shows that intelligent and determined regulation can work. Now’s the time to adopt equally intelligent and determined regulations to control greenhouse gas pollutants.

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