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Out Front in the Air Wars

photo illustration by William Duke

California struggles against air pollution, asthma, and the White House

Despite portrayals in The Simpsons and South Park, it’s not unhinged school-bus drivers that kids should most fear early in the morning: it’s exhaust. Diesel fumes can trigger asthma and cause cancer. According to the California Air Resources Board, children traveling in diesel-powered buses may breathe two to five times more polluted air than kids riding in newer, cleaner ones. Childhood asthma has more than doubled in the last two decades, and now affects more than 6 million American children.

No region is more aware of air pollution’s cost than Southern California. In a recent report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, the five metropolitan areas with the junkiest air are all in the Golden State. The Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit estimates that Los Angeles incurred nearly $2 billion in transportation-related health-care costs from air pollution in 2001 alone. More than 600 people die from asthma each year in California.

But the state also leads the nation in efforts to clean up dirty air. California has adopted landmark tailpipe-emissions rules, a law mandating cleaner vehicles, legislation capping the levels of greenhouse gases that can be produced by cars and trucks (see "Lay of the Land," September/October 2002, page 18), and even rules limiting emissions from lawn mowers and other gas-powered tools. (After the mower rules go into effect in 2007, they will eventually cut emissions by 50 tons a day, the equivalent of removing 1.8 million cars from the state’s roads.)

California’s innovation has not impressed Washington, however. The White House joined with auto manufacturers to dilute California rules requiring electric cars, and is supporting an industry attempt to strike down the state’s regulation of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Now the Bush administration is undercutting its own diesel-pollution rules, unveiled in 2001, that tightened restrictions on diesel engines. In August, the Justice Department backed oil companies and engine manufacturers in a lawsuit to overturn California regulations speeding up the conversion of taxis, buses, and other "fleet" vehicles to alternative fuels. Industry has already lost twice in federal court, but it has taken the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will clear the air, if only metaphorically. —Reed McManus


Bad-Air List

Metro areas with the highest number of days of unhealthy air, 2000 through 2002:

1. Riverside—San Bernardino, Calif. 445

2. Fresno, Calif. 421

3. Bakersfield, Calif. 409

4. Los Angeles—Long Beach, Calif. 255

5. Sacramento, Calif. 163

6. Pittsburgh, Pa. 134

7. Knoxville, Tenn. 109

8. Birmingham, Ala. 100

9. Houston, Tex. 94

10. Baltimore, Md. 93

Source: Clearing the Air, a 2003 report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project

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