By Donella Meadows
–April 3, 1997–
If the EPA carries out its plan to strengthen the Clean Air Act, that will be the end of Fourth of July fireworks.
Backyard barbecues will be banned.
You will probably lose your job.
The economy will crash.
All for a few asthmatic kids, who should just stay inside on smoggy days.
So industry ads and spokespersons are saying. It’s astonishing. They still hire public relations firms at high prices to try to make us believe stuff like this.
The National Association of Manufacturers is asking companies for $25,000 apiece for a “major grassroots lobbying effort” against the Clean Air Act. An industry front called Citizens for a Sound Economy is spending over $100,000 a week on radio ads warning that the feds are about to take away our fireworks. Their hired guns picketed Senate hearings wearing prison stripes and handing out bumper stickers: “Tell the EPA that Barbecuing is Not a Crime!” The Air Quality Standards Coalition consists of 600 firms and trade associations, each ponying up thousands of dollars to keep clean air standards from being strengthened.
There’s no way the American Lung Association, which very much wants the standards strengthened, can match that kind of spending.
Twenty-seven years after the passage of the Clean Air Act, over 60 million Americans still live in places where breathing endangers their health. Twice that many are regularly exposed to harmful levels of ozone, the prime ingredient in smog, the one that makes you gasp and wheeze, the one that reduces even a healthy adult’s lung capacity by 15-20 percent. Incidence of severe asthma, especially in children, is rising rapidly.
Given those facts, the Clean Air Act may look like a failure, but in fact it is a fair success. The air in most of our cities is improving slightly, though population, traffic, and industry have increased. Los Angeles, always the worst case, had 239 unsafe air days in 1988 and only 103 in 1995. Despite industry resistance and underfunded government enforcement, the Clean Air Act has let us go on growing without the air getting worse. The trouble is, the air is still a long way from healthy.
Congress wrote into the Act that air safety standards must be based on health, not cost, and that the EPA must check every five years to see if new science might require standards to be updated. The EPA had been slow in doing that. So in 1993 the American Lung Association sued the government to force it to obey the law and update the standards.
Now the EPA has reviewed hundreds of journal articles, suggested two new tougher standards, and gotten them approved by two scientific review panels. EPA chief Carol Browner says, “This has been the most extensive scientific review and public outreach process ever conducted by the EPA for public health standards.” Industry says the science is weak, but industry always says that.
The new standards, now open for public comment, lower the acceptable concentration of ozone by 25 percent. And there is a new standard for extremely tiny soot particles — the ones most easily inhaled deep into the lung. Meeting the new standards would, says the EPA, improve the health of 37 million adults and 13 million children and prevent 20,000 premature deaths, 500,000 asthma attacks and 9.000 hospital admissions per year. AND cut haze in national parks and $1 billion worth of agricultural crop losses.
It would be worth giving up fireworks and barbecues to produce that result, but of course fireworks and barbecues are not major sources of air pollution. The folks who bring you the real air pollution just made that up.
Medical and environmental groups are saying the new standards aren’t tough enough. Industry lobbyists are telling us how much they will cost. In 1990 they predicted the new acid rain standards would cost $1500 per ton of abated sulfur dioxide. The EPA said it would be more like $500. The real cost turned out to be under $100. Now industry says the new Clean Air standards will cost $200 billion a year. The EPA says $7 billion. Make your own guess about the real number.
If industry heads were not caught up in a system that forces them to be irresponsible, they would stop hiring PR firms to spread nonsense. They would admit that there is no scientific reason to doubt that the tons of pollution they emit make the air bad and people sick. They would recognize the immorality of earning profits for a few, while throwing costs onto everyone who breathes. They would stop plotting to deceive government and citizens, as if we were their enemies. They’d come around to our side.
They’d say — I can picture it now — “You know, it’s important to manufacture things, to employ folks, to make money. But it’s wrong to make money at the expense of someone else’s health. We don’t want to do that. So let’s figure out together how we can have clean air and a sound economy. We’ll put our best technical minds to work on it. And in an open, democratic process, we’ll decide on a fair way to split the costs and benefits. Let’s work together to make the air clean.”
After the comment period, the final EPA standards will be issued in July. There’s still time for industry to turn itself into a good guy.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997