Particulate Air Pollution

Human Mortality, Pollution Sources, and the Case for Tougher Clean Air Standards

Thursday, January 9, 1997

Particulate Air Pollution

Human Mortality, Pollution Sources, and the Case for Tougher Clean Air Standards

On Nov. 27, 1996, the Clinton Administration proposed new regulations to clean up an especially deadly form of air pollution--tiny particles that penetrate deep into human lungs, claiming the lives of more than 64,000 Americans every year (EPA 1993, NRDC 1996). The rule also proposes new standards for ground-level ozone, an issue which is not addressed in this study.

The Clinton Administration proposal represents an important step in protecting public health from particulate air pollution. According to EPA (EPA 1996d), "If finalized as proposed, the new standard would:

  • Cut premature deaths linked with particulate air pollution by 50%, or approximately 20,000 deaths; with acid rain controls currently underway, an additional 20,000 deaths will be avoided;
  • Reduce aggravated asthma episodes by more than a quarter million cases each year;
  • Reduce incidence of acute childhood respiratory problems by more than a quarter million occurrences each year, including aggravated coughing and painful breathing;
  • Reduce chronic bronchitis by an estimated 60,000 cases each year;
  • Reduce hospital admissions due to respiratory problems by 9,000 each year, as well as reduce emergency room visits and overall childhood illnesses in general;
  • Cut haze and visibility problems by as much as 77% in some areas, such as national parks."

Before the rule was even announced virtually every major oil company, power utility and steel manufacturer in the nation had banded together as the "Air Quality Standards Coalition," with the avowed goal of killing the new clean air rule.

The administration proposal is supported "by an overwhelming majority of independent scientists who reviewed the standard for EPA, based on 86 new health studies that indicate the need for a stronger standard," according to the agency. The polluter coalition has dismissed this EPA review and gone on the attack.

Congressional opponents of the rule may seek to block it, using a new law designed to protect small business, or through a legislative rider. Air quality will also be a major issue in this year's reauthorization of the multi-billion dollar transportation law (the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, ISTEA).

The Need for Public Comment

Release of the proposed rule marked the beginning of a public comment period where "EPA will seek broad public comment on its recommended approach and on the need for any changes to the particulate matter [and ozone] proposal." (EPA 1996d).

The premise of this study is that the public has a right to know, and an obligation to comment on, the public health strengths and shortcomings of the particulate pollution proposal. Questions about how much particulate pollution will be reduced, how much illness will be prevented, and how many lives will be saved, ultimately are moral and political questions that demand broad public awareness and input.

This report supports the Clinton administration's goal of reducing health risks from particulate pollution. Our analysis, however, makes clear that several aspects of the proposal, notably its monitoring provisions, should be strengthened, and we support lower limits on particulate pollution in order to save even more lives.

Now it's time for the American people to make their views known to Washington. Will the polluters win? Or will Americans get cleaner air, live longer lives, and cut the nation's annual medical bill by between $50 billion and $100 billion per year?

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