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The Planet

The Air's Clean Enough (And Other Myths)

The Planet, March 1997, Volume 4, number 2

Led by the National Association of Manufacturers, industry lobbyists are emitting a blizzard of hot air to persuade Congress to vote down the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed clean air standards. Here are some of their main arguments, followed by actual facts: It's the EPA, stupid. NAM and its friends complain that the EPA's proposals are based not on science, but on politics. In fact, the clinical evidence is overwhelming -- not just to the EPA, but to scientists throughout the United States -- that existing air-quality standards do not go far enough to protect Americans' health, especially the health of our children. The conclusion that current levels of smog and soot in our nation's air threaten children with asthma and older Americans with heart and lung diseases was not reached by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. It was the consensus of an independent panel of scientists, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which reviewed 3,000 health studies conducted over the last 15 years before recommending the EPA adopt stricter air quality standards.

The health risks of doing nothing are exaggerated. Hardly. Breathing smog makes children's lungs swell and redden and causes coughing and shortness of breath. Continued exposure can scar and severely damage children's lungs. It is the exposure to pollution at an early age, when their bodies and their immune systems are still developing, that puts children's health at risk for years to come. The EPA estimates its recommended reductions in soot and smog will reduce serious respiratory problems in children by 250,000 cases a year.

Studies confirm a direct relationship between declines in air quality and increases in hospital admissions and emergency room visits for respiratory problems, especially among the young and the elderly. For example: An American Lung Association study of 13 cities found that hospitalization of people with asthma and heart disease doubled during the summer, when smog is heaviest. The Natural Resources Defense Council's analysis of Harvard University data shows that soot in the air shortens the lives of 64,000 Americans annually. Lives are not just being shortened by days or weeks, but by an average of one to two years in the most polluted areas. Researchers at Brigham Young University discovered that when soot levels in the air rose, hospital admissions of children with respiratory illnesses tripled.

A Harvard study of children at summer camps across the country found smog damaged healthy children's lungs, even at levels well below what is currently allowed. The study also showed that children with asthma suffered more and needed to use their medication more often when smog levels climbed. Asthma is the leading cause of repeated absences from school, according to the American Lung Association. A study conducted by the UCLA School of Medicine concluded that air pollution's damage to lung function resembles the damage done by smoking tobacco.

Cleaner air is too expensive. Despite the claims of the National Association of Manufacturers and other industry associations, who are waging a multi-million-dollar campaign to derail the EPA's new standards, the new protections will save billions each year in medical costs, sick days and lost productivity. The EPA's proposals to strengthen clean-air protections will cost 10 to 12 cents per person a day, just $31 to $41 per person a year. The fact is, we cannot afford to stop the progress we have made toward cleaning America's air. The cost in lives lost and risks to our children's health is too high. Americans must have stricter air quality standards to protect our families and our future.

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