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Sierra Magazine
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Every Breath You Take
Air pollution kills tens of thousands of Americans each year. It doesn't have to be that way.
by Monika Bauerlein

(page 3 of 3)

"THE EARLY ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS were all about potential harm to people, and the issue of cost was not part of the initial mandate," notes David Rosner, a professor of history and public health at Columbia University. "But there's been a transition since then, from the idea that if there's danger, we have to find a way to remedy it, to the idea that it's all about cost-benefit analysis and it may not be cost-effective to protect people's health."

A growing number of researchers point out, though, that even in strict dollars-and-cents terms, letting pollution continue is far costlier than cleaning it up. By reducing lead exposure over the past 20 years, and thus saving a generation of children from losing between two and five IQ points on average, the nation netted about $215 billion, according to a study by researchers from Harvard and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On the whole, the Clean Air Act has been one of the most cost-effective measures to clear Congress: In its first 20 years, the EPA has estimated, the law cost the U.S. economy around $500 billion while producing an economic gain of more than $22 trillion, a tally no tax cut or pork-barrel job-creation incentive could hope to match. None other than the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)--the White House office that has recently taken the lead in questioning and weakening environmental regulations--has concluded that the 1990 amendments to the act that significantly reduced acid rain have "accounted for the largest quantified human health benefits of any federal regulatory program implemented in the last ten years, with annual benefits exceeding costs by more than 40 to 1."

If those kinds of numbers made an impression on the MBA in the Oval Office, though, he hasn't let on. Last winter, around the same time that the president declared the nation "addicted to oil" and stirred hopes for a revival of cleaner-energy policies, the White House was looking over the latest set of recommendations by the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. The scientists were urging the agency to reduce particulate emissions, such as those from power plants and oil refineries, noting that new research showed particulates to be far more dangerous than previously thought. But the committee found itself snubbed for the first time in 30 years when the EPA disregarded most of its suggestions and made, according to a scientist intimately familiar with the process, "last-minute opinions and edits" suggested by the OMB.

"This is a very cautious group of scientists," says the source, who asked not to be identified, "and it's an absolutely painstaking review process they go through. Every paper is vetted, and there's discussion about every single line of interpretation. But things that were vetted in open forums were re-vetted behind closed doors by the OMB, and things ended up in the [EPA's] proposal that had nothing to do with science." The scientist, who reviewed the White House's annotations of his own papers, came away "stunned," he says, at the degree to which politics had trumped scientific research.

"Some people don't believe Americans are dying from air pollution," says Brian Urbaszewski, who runs the environmental-health program at the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago. "It never shows up on a death certificate. It's not like a knife sticking out of someone's back. But when you look at the research that's been done over and over for the last 15 years, tens of thousands of people are dying every year." As Washington keeps chipping away at clean-air laws and the science meant to guide them, he says, "more people are going to get sick and die."

Monika Bauerlein is an editor at Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco.


Source for map: ABT Associates for Clear the Air, 2004

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