Air Quality Regulations in the United States: The Particulate Matter Controversy
Breathing is an inevitable fact of life, an automatic, involuntary, and continuous action. Ironically, the visceral nature of this function often results in the quality of the air we breathe being overlooked, that is until broad-based pollution episodes caused noticeable impacts on health. While the dangerously high levels of particulate matter (PM) pollution in India and China have been at the forefront of the news in recent years, it is easy to forget that before regulations in the United States, cities like Los Angeles and Detroit episodically saw concentrations of PM comparable to those seen in developing countries today. While easily taken for granted, the improvements that began in the United States in the 1970s required both scientist and citizen involvement to convince policy makers that legislative action was needed to protect the environment and public health. The history of regulations in the U.S. shows that people are the most important advocate for the environment and for themselves.
During the 20th century, three major episodes of sooty, acidic smog shaped public policy and scientific thinking on air quality in both Europe and the United States. Prior to these events, smoke had been seen as a sign of economic growth and prosperity, but then people started to realize the consequences of releasing pollutants into the air. The overall consensus was that high concentrations of air pollutants caused negative health effects and these “Killer Smog Episodes” needed to be prevented. Following similar air pollution events in China, the citizens there have now come to similar conclusions. The good news is, the single most important step to improving air quality is a change in attitude about the value of clean air. In the United States, such realizations manifested in the creation of Earth Day in 1970, where approximately 20 million Americans demonstrated in cities across the US to bring environmental protection to the national agenda. Only after such a public demonstration was the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established and the Clean Air Act of 1970 passed.
As regulations in the U.S. became more comprehensive, industries linked to the release of PM showed heavy opposition to the new restrictions. The battle between business interests and the EPA came to a head in 2001, when the American Trucking association and other businesses challenged the 1997 National Ambient Air Quality Standards in the Supreme Court. These industries not only called into question the validity of peer-reviewed scientific literature linking air pollution to negative health impacts but claimed that the economic cost of the new regulations would be crippling. The Supreme court ruled that the primary standards for air pollutants aimed at protecting human health are legally required to be set outside the realm of cost and feasibility of attainment and that the EPA had acted within its discretionary scope in establishing such regulations. The leaders of the judicial branch of the United States definitively ruled that the health of the citizens was more important than the economic cost of reducing emissions. From public demonstrations at Earth Day to the highest level of government, the people succeeded in making air quality and public health a priority.
Many governments refuse to adopt pollution reduction measures fearing the negative impact on their developing economies, oftentimes pointing out that western countries were heavy polluters during their industrial revolutions. This argument seems comparable to claiming that individuals should be allowed to smoke cigarettes because their parents or grandparents smoked.
In the 1950’s, the disastrous impacts on people’s health and those around them was not understood; however, as the medical community revealed the dangers associated with smoking, educated consumers began to quit to protect their health.
Claiming that smoking should be acceptable now because it was acceptable, or even admirable, in the past is justifying one’s actions by citing the mistakes of others.
Academics have spent decades elucidating the dangers of air pollution. Now that the consequences are understood, governments cannot use economic growth as an excuse to skirt their responsibilities to protect both the environment and their people. While pollution was initially accepted as an inevitable price of economic progress in the U.S. and Europe, that was only until science revealed the true price of this progress. Countries such as China and India are realizing the costs of unimpeded air pollution and the citizens of these countries are beginning to hold their governments accountable to make not only the health of the economy a priority but also the health of its people and the environment a priority.