Clean Air vs. Dirty Interference

As we mark 50 years of the Clean Air Act, the science underpinning its remarkable success is under assault.

Ozone smog pollution over the Denver skyline

U.S. Department of Energy

The Trump administration continues its assault on clean air this week, by convening a group of handpicked advisers in a sham review process. It’s another sad chapter in this administration’s corrupt partnership with corporate polluters. The Clean Air Act has been an unmitigated success story. Since it was passed into law in 1970, it has helped to extend lifespan across the country by about seven months on average, and delivered health benefits to the tune of $2 trillion.

All of these gains have been driven by science: careful work is done around the country, day after day, to collect air quality samples, analyze them, and assess whether the air we all breathe meets health benchmarks backed by evidence. If it doesn’t, states are required to develop robust plans to clean up their act.

Some have argued that the costs of clean air protections have come at the expense of economic growth. But in fact the opposite is true: while levels of key air pollutants have declined by 74 percent since 1970, the economy has expanded by 275 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

Between 1970- 2018, emissions of six common air pollutants fell 74% (bottom line) while the U.S. economy continued to grow (top line)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Original chart: https://gispub.epa.gov/air/trendsreport/2019/documentation/AirTrends_Fly...

A Corrupt Review Led By Inept Advisers

Our country’s remarkable progress in delivering clean air to every American is now in peril. Since taking office three years ago, the Trump administration has led an aggressive assault on the legal and scientific underpinnings of the Clean Air Act. These are the very components that have made it so effective at holding polluters accountable.

As a former EPA scientist, three recent actions at the agency worry me in particular:

  • First, the former coal industry lobbyist now running the Environmental Protection Agency has hand-picked a group of advisers for a critical air quality review panel. They are not up to the task. This expert panel lacks even one health scientist. Yet it is charged with making sense of thousands of pages of agency staff analysis on the health harms triggered by air pollution. The EPA is depriving itself of vital expertise.
  • Second, EPA officials are moving with needless haste toward a radical policy shift that could weaken our country’s clean air protections. They have set arbitrary deadlines and are ignoring decades of best practice, aiming to lock in questionable policies that favor polluting industries for years to come.
    • For example, this week, the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee is deliberating on whether or not to recommend a strengthening of federally-defined limits for ozone smog pollution.

      Ozone is a dangerous air pollutant that triggers an array of health problems, including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and airway inflammation. It also worsens bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. The committee is poised to put the brakes on decades of clean air progress and recommend no further tightening of the standard, an outcome that is not supported by the scientific evidence.

      We should be cutting ozone pollution, not resting easy: more than 122 million Americans breathe dirty air and climate change is worsening ozone smog across the country.
  • Third, extreme voices within EPA’s political leadership are demanding wholesale upheaval of accepted vetting practices for scientific evidence. Their agenda threatens to substitute fringe opinions for thousands of peer-reviewed air pollution studies. One new adviser, for example made the argument that inhaling polluted air is actually good for your health.

The process of reviewing, revising and finalizing national air quality standards generally takes about five years, at a minimum. So, any reversal of harmful rules could take years. This delay means that tens of thousands of people could die of air pollution-related diseases, like lung cancer and heart attacks, particularly if legal challenges get tied up in court.

Smoke from climate change-fueled wildfires is worsening air quality across the country.

These moves to censor science and enable arbitrary political influence in high-stakes agency decision-making set a dangerous precedent for other federal agencies that use data to make decisions--like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is currently analyzing cutting-edge public health science in order to execute our nation’s response to the global Coronavirus pandemic.

The Inequitable Burden of Pollution

For me, these attacks on established scientific facts are personal. I used to work at the EPA on implementation of clean air laws in the Midwest, and I’ve seen firsthand the dangers of ignoring data and allowing industry to write its own rules: communities of color in southeast Chicago already bear the brunt of the city’s toxic industrial pollution because of a legacy of systematic racism in environmental policymaking and enforcement. While the families living near facilities that spew out smoke day after day are not only at heightened risk for health problems like asthma and bronchitis, they’re also often the least able to afford the medical bills for treating those diseases.

At a time when we know more than we’ve ever known about the many health harms caused by air pollution, even at levels that are less than half of current legal limits, we cannot ignore the reality that further efforts to clean up our air will still save lives and dollars.

Scientific Evidence Key to Progress

Stronger clean air protections should be something all Americans can agree on, regardless of their political leanings. That’s why today I’m delivering public comments the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, urging it to rely on scientific evidence and proven processes to make its recommendations, rather than fringe opinions and political spin. In this moment, as the nation’s landmark clean air law turns 50 years old, all Americans should stand up for their legal right to breathe clean and healthy air.

About the Authors

Vijay Limaye

Science Fellow, Science Center
Blog Post

New evidence of mental health harms shows us why we've got to reduce air pollution.

Blog Post

Business, health, and government leaders from around the country and around the world gathered last week to step up their fight against the harms of climate change. It's time for President Trump to do the same.

Blog Post

NRDC submitted comments telling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to drop this unfounded and illegal idea.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.