TCS Daily

Autos and Air Pollution Should File for Divorce

By Joel Schwartz - May 15, 2001 12:00 AM

Fed a daily dose of media horror stories, most people have been led to think that air quality is getting worse, when in fact it's been improving for more than 20 years.

A number of national and regional surveys have found that large majorities of Americans believe air pollution has been getting worse or will get worse in the future, including more than 80 percent of people in Houston and Dallas, almost two-thirds in northern California and Long Island, and 60 percent in a nationwide survey. A recent Los Angeles Times poll found that people most concerned with environmental problems, including air pollution, believe that they are getting worse.

Yet the truth is virtually the opposite. The fight against air pollution is one of the great success stories of environmental protection in the United States. Even as many metropolises have grown over the last 30 years, and vehicle travel has doubled, air pollution levels have been dropping. Here are just a few examples:

According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), average ozone levels in urban and suburban areas decreased by almost 25 percent between 1980 and 1999. A number of major metropolitan areas, including Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, San Francisco, and San Diego, achieved 60 percent to 90 percent reductions in annual violations of the federal ozone health standard between the late 1980s and the late 1990s. Even Houston, which has not made much progress on air pollution in the 1990s, has reduced its air pollution violations by more than 50 percent from 1970s levels. Houston's population also grew by a whopping 30 percent in the 1990s, so even holding the line on ozone pollution can be seen as a significant achievement.

Particulate pollution - the fine haze particles that obscure views and can lodge deep in our lungs - has also declined nationwide, with more than 60 percent of metropolitan areas seeing reductions in peak particulate levels and none seeing increases during the last decade. Man-made particulate emissions plunged by 55 percent between 1980 and 1999. Violations of the particulate health standard have decreased in both frequency and magnitude in most areas.

Finally, violations of the carbon monoxide standard decreased by 93 percent between 1990 and 1999, putting the country on the verge of eliminating carbon monoxide pollution as a public health concern.

The South Coast Air Basin, which includes Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange counties and is home to more than 16 million people, is the biggest success story of all. In 1990 the most polluted areas of South Coast exceeded the federal ozone health standard on 131 days, making it the most polluted area in the nation by far. Ten years later, the violation rate has dropped by 70 percent to about 40 per year. High ozone levels now also cover a much smaller portion of the region, and peak ozone levels are 50 percent lower than 10 years ago. Taken together this means that far fewer people are exposed to unhealthful levels of ozone. For those who are exposed, the exposures occur much less often and at much lower concentrations than in the past. LA's air quality progress occurred in spite of a 10 percent increase in population during the 1990s.

Particulate pollution has also decreased throughout California, home to some of the highest particulate pollution levels in the country. Both southern California and the Central Valley reduced violations of the federal particulate health standard by about 80 percent during the 1990s.

So despite the public's gloomy perception, America has made great strides in the fight against air pollution. What about the future? Public perception has it that growth in vehicle travel will cause future air quality to get worse. But the past 20 years have shown that metropolitan growth and clean air can go together. On-road pollution studies have shown that average pollution from the vehicle fleet is dropping by about 5 percent to 10 percent per year. Tough EPA and California pollution standards for new cars and trucks will ensure that air pollution levels continue to go down for the foreseeable future as the fleet turns over to new low-polluting vehicles.

A society can make good decisions about improving health and safety only if its people have accurate information about the risks they face. In a world of limited resources, more serious problems will get shortchanged if risks from air pollution continue to be overestimated. The fight against air pollution is one of the great success stories of environmental protection. It's a shame people don't know more about the fruits of their efforts.


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