The day is like any other in the tiny Swiss village of
Blumisalpen. The rising sun is glistening off the fresh
covering of just-fallen snow, and as he has done nearly every
morning for the last fifty years, Dr. Jean Pereault is stopping
in at the bakery before heading over to open the doors of his
modest practice. Being the doctor in a hidden little hamlet
where the people take good care of themselves means seeing only a few patients now and then to mend a bruise, fix an ankle, or
deliver a baby. And having just returned from an extended
vacation in Barcelona, the thought of a light schedule this day
suits the good doctor just fine. But as he enters his office,
Pereault sees his waiting room packed to overflow and quickly
seeks out the young doctor who has temporarily taken his place.
“Hans, what has happened,” Pereault inquires bewilderedly, “when
I left, everyone was just fine.” “Ah yes,” replies Dr. Trauptman
as he smiles ever so slyly, “but that was before I called a town
meeting to tell all the people about the exotic and complicated-
sounding new diseases I’ve `uncovered’ in the area. And you
know, the very expensive treatments they require haven’t exactly been bad for business…”
Ask almost anyone and they’ll tell you the air in America’s
cities desperately needs to be cleaned up. And why wouldn’t
they? Anyone who has visited a major U.S. city has plainly seen
for himself the smokestacks and traffic jams that are surely
making our nation’s air unfit to breathe, and we’re constantly
being told by the media, government agencies, and environmental
groups that our air quality is suffocatingly low.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in fact, is now
proposing the most significant tightening of air quality
standards in nearly a decade. A major public relations
campaign is currently being waged to pave the way for these
new regulations. But while there maybe some legitimate
concerns about clean air remaining in a few scattered places, it
appears that just as in the make-believe Alpine village of
Blumisalpen, the American public is about to buy an expensive
cure for a disease that just doesn’t exist.
A clearer view back
There’s a common perception out there that air pollution is
a product of modern industrial society. In reality, though,
dirty air is practically as old as the hills.
Queen Eleanor recorded England’s first complaint of air
pollution when she visited Nottingham in 1257. Italians were
allegedly killed by airborne mercury poisoning in the 1700’s.
And by the 17th Century, pollution had become so bad in London
that John Evelyn wrote a book lamenting how “this Glorious and
Ancient city…should so wrap her stately head in Clowds of
Smoake and Sulphur, so full of Stink and Darknesse.”
Another common perception wafting through the public
jetstream is the notion that as more cars, factories and power
plants dot the landscape, the problem of air pollution can only
get worse. So it should come as quite a surprise for many to
learn that over the last half of this century, the exact opposite
has taken place.
Even before Uncle Sam got in the business of regulating
clean air in a major way, monitoring stations set up in six major
cities found levels of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, ground-
level ozone, and settleable dust generally falling prior to 1968.
Per-capita emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
dropped nearly 15% between 1930 and 1960. And total particulate matter (PM-10) emissions actually plummeted from around 16
million short tons in 1940 to around 12 million 30 years later.
According to CFACT scientific advisor Dr. Hugh Ellsaesser,
the reasons for these encouraging trends were manifold since
“technological change, state and local pollution controls,
increased electrification, and a shift from manufacturing to
service industries” all contributed greatly to cleaner air.
To be sure, federal legislation in the form of the 1970
Clean Air Act (CAA) also had a major hand in scrubbing up the
skies. Just a quick look at the data reveals that since the
heydays of bell-bottom pants and love beads, carbon monoxide has fallen by 23%, VOCs by 24%, sulfur dioxide by 32%, PM-10 by 78%, and lead by an astounding 98%. Indeed, air pollution as a whole has decreased some 24% over this time, despite a 27% increase in U.S. population, a 111% increase in domestic vehicle miles, and a 90% increase in our GNP.
Fouled by federal halitosis
Without a doubt, the CAA certainly did much to filter the
smog from our nation’s towering skylines. But as it turns out,
this sweeping legislation has sadly become only a mixed blessing.
First, it helped to create a massive federal bureaucracy
within EPA, that like all government programs, never wants to see
the problem it’s addressing truly go away. When first planted in
1970, the EPA had a seed budget of $205 million and a staff of
just 4,500. But after being liberally watered through big
programs like the CAA, the thick-stalked agency has now sprouted
to control a budget of $6.2 billion and a quadrupled staff of
over 18,000 — accounting for roughly one-third of Washington’s
entire regulatory budget.
Second, and certainly more troublesome, is the vague
language contained in the law that has offered the hungry
bureaucracy plenty of latitude in which to justify its continued
growth. Specifically, the CAA calls for standards that provide
“an adequate margin of safety [as] as requisite to protect public
health.” But while this may sound rather nebulous to most
people, for the regulatory ambulance chasers at the EPA it has
come to mean “zero risk” against any negative health effect to
any individual — or in the words of former EPA head William
Ruckelshaus, an “impossible standard of perfection.”
With this broad mandate, the EPA in 1990 was able to push
through exorbitant CAA amendments that ignored a half-billion
study debunking the myths of acid rain, relied almost exclusively
on one particularly hot summer in 1988 for its smog statistics,
and used as its model for “one-in-a-million” cancer risk, a
person perched next to a smokestack 24 hours a day for 70 years.
And with this mandate, it is now pushing to place an even
tighter chokehold on America’s metropolitan areas.
Reason to breathe easy
On the day before Thanksgiving 1996, while most Americans
were either at the grocery store getting ready for their feast or
sitting in traffic on the way to Grandma’s house, the EPA was
cooking up a turkey of its own. Proposing strict new standards
for particulate matter (i.e. soot) and ground-level ozone (i.e.
smog), agency chief Carol Browner boldly stated, “The current
standards do not adequately protect public health.”
Was she correct? Most scientists say, “No.”
According to the Center for the Study of American Business,
most people usually experience less than a 10% drop in lung
function even at ozone levels twice the current standard of .12
ppm — and in many cases even four times the current CAA
standard. Such a decline in lung function is undetectable to
Studies on rodents even further bolster the notion that
current standards are more than adequate. A two-year study
conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health
Sciences found “no evidence of `carcinogenic activity’ from ozone
in rats continually exposed for two years at levels up to one
part per million — about 8.3 times the federal standard and far
higher than levels in urban smog.”
Even the EPA’s own science advisory council concluded,
“…there are no significant public health benefits observed by
going from the present standards to any of the standards proposed by the EPA.”
So not only are tighter standards unnecessary, but it would
seem that even the current standards are more than safe —
especially when you consider that rare, summertime exceedences
usually occur for just an hour or so during the “heat of the day”
when most people are indoors anyway.
Choking our cities
Despite all this, some might ask that if we can make the air
cleaner, why not just go ahead? Well that might seem to make
perfect sense, but if the actual benefits turn out to be
nonexistent, and the cost to achieve them is through the
stratosphere, then it may not make such good sense, after all.
According to Eric Peters of The Washington Times, the EPA’s
tightened standards would make the nonattainment areas for ozone jump from just over 70 to approximately 326 — a fourfold increase that would place as many as 75% of our nation’s counties in the federal doghouse.
For those living in these areas, this would mean a host of
new headaches ranging from expensive emissions testing at
centralized facilities and the purchase of costly reformulated
gasoline to mandated carpooling and maybe even some other
bureaucratic contrivances that have yet to be dreamed up.
What’s more, it may be impossible for some regions to ever
achieve compliance, no matter how hard they try, since Mother
Nature herself produces levels of ozone approaching the new
standard. This was seen, for example, in the Theodore Roosevelt
National Park in North Dakota where between 1988 and 1994,
natural ozone levels created by trees ranged from .05 to .072 ppm
— just a hair under the proposed EPA limit.
And the cost for this whole thing? Well if Chicago is any
indication, a recent cost study by Sierra Research put the
pricetag of compliance for the Windy City alone at a cool $2.5 to
Dr. Trauptman would be proud.