(5) Air Pollution

  Air Pollution


How Should We Deal with Air Pollution?

 CONCEPT 15-2 Legal, economic, and technological tools can help clean up air pollution, but scientists call for much greater emphasis on preventing air pollution.



 Laws Have Reduced Outdoor Air Pollution in the United States

The U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Acts in 1970, 1977, and 1990. With these laws, the federal government established air pollution regulations for key pollutants that are enforced by states and major cities.

Congress directed the EPA to establish national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for six outdoor crite Laws Have Reduced Outdoor Air Pollution in the United States The U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Acts in 1970, 1977, and 1990. With these laws, the federal government established air pollution regulations for key pollutants that are enforced by states and major cities.

Congress directed the EPA to establish national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for six outdoor criteria pollutants-carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, suspended particulate matter, ozone, and lead. One limit, called a primary standard, is set to protect human health. Each standard specifies the maximum allowable level, averaged over a specific period, for a certain pollutant in outdoor (ambient) air.

The EPA has also established national emission standards for more than 188 hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) that can cause serious health and ecological effects.

Most of these chemicals are chlorinated hydro- carbons, volatile organic compounds, or compounds of toxic metals.

Great news. According to a 2005 EPA report, combined emissions of the six principal outdoor air pollutants decreased by 53% between 1970 and 2005, even with significant increases in gross domestic product, vehicle miles traveled, energy consumption, and population (Concept 15-2). The decreases for the six pollutants during this period were 99% for lead, 84% for suspended particulate matter, 55% for carbon monoxide, 52% for sulfur dioxide, 29% for nitrogen oxides, and 14% for ground-level ozone. Volatile organic compounds decreased 53% in this period.

The bad news is that although photochemical smog levels dropped in the 1980s, they have fallen very little since 1994. In 2004, the EPA found that 474 of the nation’s 2,700 counties in 31 states had unacceptable levels of ground-level ozone, a major ingredient in unhealthy smog. Reducing smog will require much bigger cuts in emissions of nitrogen oxides from power and industrial plants and motor vehicles. According to the EPA, almost 60% of the U.S. population lives in areas where the air is unhealthy to breathe during part of the year because of high levels of smog pollutants, primarily ozone and very small particles.

 U.S. Air Pollution Laws Can Be Improved

The reduction of outdoor air pollution in the United States since 1970 has been a remarkable success story. It occurred because of two factors. First, U.S. citizens insisted that laws be passed and enforced to improve air quality. Second, the country was affluent enough to afford such controls and improvements. Environmental scientists applaud the success of U.S. air pollution control laws but suggest the following deficiencies.

• The United States continues to rely mostly on pollution cleanup rather than prevention (Concept 15-2). The power of prevention is clear. In the United States, the air pollutant with the largest drop in its atmospheric level was lead (99% between 1970 and 2005), which was largely banned in gasoline. This has prevented a generation of children from suffering lead poisoning.

• The U.S. Congress has failed to increase fuel-efficiency (CAFE) standards for cars, SUVs, and light trucks. CAFÉ standards have been shown to reduce air pollution from motor vehicles more quickly and effectively than any other method. Congress has also failed to enact a feebate program.

• Regulation of emissions from motorcycles and two-cycle gasoline engines remains inadequate. Two-cycle engines used in lawn mowers, leaf blowers, chain saws, jet skis, outboard motors, and snowmobiles emit high levels of pollutants (although less-polluting polluting versions are becoming available). According to the California Air Resources Board, a 1-hour ride on a typical jet ski creates more air pollution than the average U.S. car does in a year, and operating a 100-horsepower boat engine for 7 hours emits more air pollutants than driving a new car 160,000 kilometers (100,000 miles).

• There is little or no regulation of air pollution from oceangoing ships in American ports. According to the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund, a single cargo ship emits more air pollution than 2,000 diesel trucks or 350,000 cars. Ships burn the dirtiest grades of diesel fuel and threaten the health of millions of dockworkers and other people living in port cities.

• Major airports, which are among the top polluters in urban areas, are exempt from many air pollution regulations.

• As of 2007, the Clean Air Acts did not specifically regulate emissions of the greenhouse gas CO2, which can alter climate and cause numerous harmful ecological, health, and economic effects.

• The acts have failed to deal seriously with indoor air pollution, even though it is by far the most serious air pollution problem in terms of poorer health, premature death, and economic losses from lost work time and increased health costs.

• There is a need for better enforcement of the Clean Air Acts. Under the acts, state and local officials have primary responsibility for implementing federal clean air standards, based on federal funding. However, a 2006 study by the Center for American Progress found that since 1993, enforcement hás become lax because of a sharp drop in federal grants to state and local air quality agencies and relaxed federal inspection standards. According to a 2002 government study, more rigorous enforcement would save about 6,000 lives and prevent 140,000 asthma attacks each year in the United States.

Executives of companies that would be affected by implementing stronger policies claim that correcting deficiencies in the Clean Air Acts would cost too much and harm economic growth. Proponents contend that most industry cost estimates for implementing U.S. air pollution control standards have been many times the actual costs. In addition, implementing such standards hás boosted economic growth and created jobs by stimulating companies to develop new technologies for reducing air pollution emissions-many of which can be sold in the global marketplace. Without intense pressure from citizens, it is unlikely that the U.S. Congress will strengthen the Clean Air Acts. In recent years, in fact, Congress has weakened some air pollution regulations.

 We Can Use the Marketplace to Reduce Outdoor Air Pollution

 Allowing producers of air pollutants to buy and sell government air pollution allotments in the marketplace can help reduce emissions (Concept 15-2). To help reduce SO2 emissions, the Clean Air Act of 1990 authorizes an emissions trading, or cap-and-trade, program, which enables the 110 most polluting power plants in 21 states (primarily in the midwestern and eastern United States) to buy and sell SO2 pollution rights.

Each year, a coal-burning power plant is given a number of pollution credits, which allow it to emit a certain amount of SO2. A utility that emits less SO2 than it is allotted has a surplus of pollution credits. It can use these credits to avoid reductions in SO2 emissions at another of its plants, keep them for future plant expansions, or sell them to other utilities, private citizens, or environmental groups.

Proponents argue that this approach is cheaper and more efficient than having the government dictate how to control air pollution. Critics of this plan contend that it allows utilities with older, dirtier power plants to buy their way out of their environmental responsibilities and continue polluting. This approach also can encourage cheating, because it is based largely on self-reporting of emissions.

Scientists warn that the ultimate success of any emissions trading approach depends on how low the initial cap is set and then on the annual lowering of the cap, which should promote continuing innovation in air pollution prevention and control. Without these elements, emissions trading programs mostly move air pollutants from one area to another without achieving any overall reduction in air quality.

Good news. Between 1990 and 2005, the emissions trading system helped reduce SO2 emissions from electric power plants in the United States by 31% at a cost of less than one-tenth the cost projected by industry.

The EPA estimates that by 2010, this approach will annually generate health and environmental benefits that are 60 times higher than the annual cost of the program.

Emissions trading is also being tried for NOx and perhaps in the future for other air pollutants. However, environmental and health scientists strongly oppose using a cap-and-trade program to control emissions of mercury by coal-burning power plants and industries, because this pollutant is highly toxic and does not break down in the environment. Coal-burning plants choosing to buy permits instead of sharply reducing their mercury emissions would create toxic hot spots with unacceptably high levels of mercury.

In 2002, the EPA reported results from the country’s oldest and largest emissions trading program, in effect since 1993 in southern California. According to the report, this cap-and-trade model fell far short of projected emissions reductions. The same study also found accounting abuses. This highlights the need for more careful government monitoring of all cap-andtrade programs.

 There Are Many Ways to Reduce Outdoor Air Pollution

 Between 1980 and 2002, emissions of SO2 from U.S. electric power plants were decreased by 40%, emissions of NOx by 30%, and soot emissions by 75%.. However, approximately 20,000 older coal-burning plants, industrial plants, and oil refineries in the United States have not been required to meet the air pollution standards required for new facilities under the Clean Air Acts. Officials of states subject to pollution from such plants have been trying to get Congress to correct this shortcoming since 1970. But they have not been successful because of strong lobbying efforts by U.S. coal and electric power industries.

 Reducing Indoor Air Pollution Should Be a Priority

Little effort has been devoted to reducing indoor air pollution even though it poses a much greater threat to human health than does outdoor air pollution. Air pollution experts suggest several ways to prevent or reduce indoor air pollution.


Motor Vehicle Air Pollution


 Use mass transit

Walk or bike

Use less polluting fuels

Improve fuel efficiency

Get older, polluting cars off the road

Give large tax writeoffs or rebates for buying low-polluting, energy efficient vehicles


Indoor Air Pollution


 Cover ceiling tiles and lining of AC ducts to prevent release of mineral fibers

Ban smoking or limit it to wellventilated areas

Set stricter formaldehyde emissions standards for carpet, furniture, and building


Prevent rádon infiltration

Use Office machines in wellventilated areas

Use less polluting substitutes for harmful cleaning agents, paints, and other products

 Cleanup or Dilution

 Use adjustable fresh air vents for work spaces

Increase intake of outside air

Change air more frequently

Circulate a building’s air through rooftop greenhouses

Use efficient venting systems for wood-burning stoves

Use exhaust hoods for stoves and appliances burning natural gas

 In developing countries, indoor air pollution from open fires and leaky and inefficient stoves that burn wood, charcoal, or coal could be reduced. People could use inexpensive clay or metal stoves that burn biofuels more efficiently, while venting their exhaust to the outside, or stoves that use solar energy to cook food. This would also reduce deforestation by cutting demand for fuelwood and charcoal.

 We Need More Emphasis on Pollution Prevention

 Encouraging news. Since 1970, most of the world’s developed countries have enacted laws and regulations that have significantly reduced outdoor air pollution.

Most of these laws emphasize controlling outdoor air pollution by using output approaches. To environmental and health scientists, the next step is to shift to preventing

air pollution. With this approach, the question is not “What can we do about the air pollutants we produce?” but rather “How can we avoid producing these pollutants in the first place?”  Like the shift to controlling outdoor air pollution between 1970 and 2006, this new shift to preventing outdoor and indoor air pollution will not take place unless individual citizens and groups put political pressure on elected officials and economic pressure on companies through their purchasing decisions.


Indoor Air Pollution

 Test for radon and formaldehyde inside your home and take corrective measures as needed.

Do not buy furniture and other products containing formaldehyde.

Remove your shoes before entering your house to reduce inputs of dust, lead, and pesticides.

Test your house or workplace for asbestos fiber levels and check for any crumbling asbestos materials if it was built before 1980.

Do not store gasoline, solvents, or other volatile hazardous chemicals inside a home or attached garage.

If you smoke, do it outside or in a closed room vented to the outside.

Make sure that wood-burning stoves, fireplaces, and keroseneand gas-burning heaters are properly installed, vented, and maintained.

Install carbon monoxide detectors in all sleeping areas.


Air Pollution


 Improve energy efficiency to reduce fossil fuel use

Rely more on lower-polluting natural gas

Rely more on renewable energy (especially solar cells, wind, and solar-produced hydrogen)

Transfer energy efficiency, renewable energy, and pollution prevention technologies to

Developing countries


 Reduce poverty

Distribute cheap and efficient cookstoves or solar cookers to poor families in developing countries

Reduce or Ban indoor smoking

Develop simple and cheap tests for indoor pollutants such as particulates, radon, and formaldehyde


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