The History of Now
Editor's note, June 30, 2022: The Supreme Court issued a 6-to-3 decision on Thursday that limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases from power plants as required by the Clean Air Act. Read below for our 2010 story on the history of EPA and 1970 legislation.
London was engulfed by a terrible smog in December 1952. The city was trapped by the colder air above and the cloud remained there for four days. The Great Smog, or sooty cloud, was rich in both low-quality coal from homes and factories. It caused around 12,000 deaths.
Similar but smaller lethal clouds engulfed Liege, Belgium in 1930, killing at most 60 people. Donora in Pennsylvania in 1948 was responsible for another number of deaths.
These catastrophes brought the world face to face with the dangers of pollution and sparked a movement for cleaner air. In 1956, the United Kingdom was the first country to adopt broad regulations regarding air pollution. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970 by the United States. The original act empowered the EPA with six major air pollutants to be controlled and safe limits. It has since been expanded to cover 189 potential threats.
Jonathan Samet, an air quality researcher and professor at the University of Southern California, says that "it's a tremendous act." As a result, we've seen a dramatic drop in the major air pollutants.
These tighter regulations and better technology have resulted in significant reductions of airborne lead, sulfur compounds, and chlorofluorocarbons in the United States. According to Samet, concentrations of carbon monoxide have fallen by around 90% in large American cities. This is a compound that was once released by every vehicle and truck. However, catalytic converters now remove it from the air. Concentrations of particulate material, which is a classification that covers a wide range pollutants from the microscopic and near-microscopic ranges, have fallen by around 80 percent since their peak. Ozone levels have also dropped. According to a 2009 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2009, the average life expectancy rose five months from 1980 to 2000 due to the drop in air pollution.
Even clearer skies can pose a danger: Decades worth of sophisticated research have shown that there is no safe level of air pollution. The United States still loses tens of thousands each year due to air pollution. The Clean Air Act mandates that the EPA base its pollution limits upon the most recent science. As research has revealed more health risks, the EPA has been steadily increasing its standards.
Some of the EPA's early pollution standards were based on "challenge research" with human volunteers. People with asthma, heart disease, and other conditions were exposed in a laboratory to ozone, carbon monoxide, and other chemicals, during the 1970s. According to Daniel Greenbaum, the president of the Health Effects Institute funded by the EPA as well as car manufacturers, their lung capacity decreased and their blood vessels contracted "at lower levels than had been anticipated." The EPA pushed for higher standards and catalytic converters became mandatory on all new vehicles by 1975.
In the 1980s, indoor air quality became a major concern. Flight attendants were the first to advocate for banning cigarette smoking as they became more aware of the dangers involved in smoking. The smoking ban was gradually increased on planes, until it was completely eliminated in 2000. All across the country, indoor smoking bans have become a standard practice.
After a Pennsylvania house was found to have enough radon to shut down a uranium mine, a radon panic erupted in the country in the mid-1980s. Soon after, the EPA recommended radon testing in all homes. Despite all the attention and widespread testing of homes, radon is still the leading cause of lung cancer in America. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that around 20,000 Americans die each year from radon-induced lung disease.
In the late 1980s, a striking strike at a steel plant near Provo, Utah led to a stark demonstration of the health hazards of airborne particles. Arden Pope, a researcher at Brigham Young University, saw the closure as an opportunity to compare airborne particle readings with hospital records. His 1989 findings were remarkable. The number of children admitted to local hospitals for respiratory problems suffered by their parents dropped to one-third when the mill closed. The admissions of adults with respiratory issues dropped by half. Greenbaum says, "It's an excellent cause-and-effect study that leads to a strong conclusion."
In the 1990s, two large studies further confirmed particulate pollution's danger. Both studies collected huge data sets about ordinary Americans and their environment. In 1974, Harvard's Six Cities Study found that there were 26 per cent fewer deaths due to lung or heart disease in the area with the lowest levels of particles (Portage, Wisconsin). This was compared with Steubenville, Ohio, which has the highest concentrations of particles. Many other studies have confirmed the heart- and lung-damaging effects on particles 10 microns or smaller. This includes an American Cancer Society survey of 150 American cities. These studies prompted EPA to tighten its regulations regarding particulate pollution in 1997. The agency started regulating smaller particles of 2.5 microns.
According to Francesca Dominici, an air quality researcher at Harvard University, these tiny particles can penetrate deeply into the lungs, where they can trigger asthma attacks or cause scarring similar to that caused by cigarette smoking. Particulate pollution can cause lung damage in people who have asthma or other lung diseases. However, large studies also show that there are risks for those with diabetes and heart disease. Joel Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist at Harvard, said that a continuing review of Medicare hospitalizations shows that particulate pollution is responsible for "hundreds upon thousands of deaths every year" due to strokes, heart disease, and lung diseases.
Dominici says, "No one in the research community has any doubt that even low levels ozone and particulate matter are associated with adverse effects on health." Numerous studies have shown that pollution has adisproportionate impact on the poor who live close to highways and industrial areas.
EPA is currently reviewing these studies as part of its long-running process to update its regulations on particle size. Dominici believes the key challenge is identifying the sources of particles that can easily be controlled. Power plants, factories and vehicles all play a role in the problem. She says that it is difficult to reduce the pollution levels.
Another challenge is reducing ozone concentrations, which are another major pollutant from industry, vehicles, and the main ingredient of smog. Because sunlight reacts with different pollutants, ozone is formed. Ozone concentrations can rise on sunny days. In 2008, the EPA increased its ozone limit and proposed a tighter standard for January 2010. Setting a standard is one thing, but achieving it is quite another. According to the American Lung Association, 174 million people live within counties that do not meet 2008 ozone standards.
The EPA considered the future in 2009 and declared six greenhouse gasses, including methane and carbon dioxide, as dangers to human and animal health. According to the agency, climate change will increase ground-level oxygen and expose vulnerable populations to heat waves and other extreme weather. It also expects that transmissible diseases and heat waves that thrive in warm climates will continue to grow. The implications of the EPA’s declaration, which was made following a 2007 Supreme Court decision that greenhouse gases are covered by the Clean Air Act, remain unclear. The EPA has not regulated the emissions of these gases, but it urged Congress for comprehensive climate change legislation.
It is unlikely that it is possible to reduce air pollution to zero, which is the safest level. Researchers say there are many opportunities to improve air quality and human health. Samet says that reducing pollution still has many benefits.