EPA Says Air Quality is Improving

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, October 19, 2001 (ENS) - Air quality in the United States maintained its steady improvement through the year 2000, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's annual summary of air quality trends released Thursday. The nonprofit Clean Air Trust, however, says the EPA's report leaves out some crucial details.

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The EPA report says that smog concentrations have decreased by 10 percent over the past decade, despite an increase in vehicle miles traveled (Photo courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)
Air pollution can cause a variety of health problems, from burning eyes and irritated throats, to birth defects, brain and nerve impairment and long term damage to the lungs. Smog, for example, can irritate the respiratory system, aggravate asthma and inflame the lining of the lung.

The report focuses on national long term trends in air pollution, not the air quality status of individual cities. Six major air pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act are investigated in the report, which covers the period 1991-2000.

According to the EPA report, from 1991-2000:

The EPA says that the nation's air quality has been improving since the agency's formation in 1970. Over the same time period, the gross domestic product increased 158 percent, miles traveled by cars and trucks increased 143 percent, and energy consumption increased by 45 percent.

"The Bush Administration is committed to building on the clean air progress of the last 30 years," EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said. "One way we're going to accomplish this is to work with Congress on a proposal for multi-emissions legislation that will further reduce air pollution from power plants while providing that industry the flexibility it needs to produce clean, efficient energy."

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Motor vehicle emissions contribute substantially to the nation's air pollution. Ground level ozone, or smog, is caused when the pollutants in motor vehicle exhaust react with sunlight (Photo by Ken Hammond, courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)
The EPA noted that some types of air pollution continue to present a challenge in some areas of the country. Progress has been slowest for smog and fine particles, the agency said. While overall smog levels have decreased in the past 10 years, amounts have increased in the southern and north-central regions of the United States.

But the Clean Air Trust says the agency failed to note several other ongoing air quality problems.

Smog and soot forming nitrogen oxides emissions actually increased by three percent during the past decade, the Trust said. This is mainly due to increased emissions from diesel trucks and buses and from so called "nonroad" diesel engines, including construction equipment.

During the past decade, smog levels rose in 29 national parks, including "significant upward trends" in the Great Smoky Mountains, the Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Canyonlands, among others, the Trust said. The fine print of EPA's report also suggests that visibility is becoming worse at western national parks, the group said.

"Despite progress in reducing pollution, EPA's press release neglected to mention that more than 121 million people were still living in areas that violated basic public health standards in 2000," the group noted. "In a footnote to its report, EPA noted that 'this number may increase' as new monitors go up to track fine particulate soot."

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Coal burning power plants emit sulfur dioxides and mercury into the atmosphere (Photo by Carole Swinehart, courtesy Michigan Sea Extension)
The Clean Air Trust also noted that the EPA report does not discuss the mercury emissions from coal burning power plants that can lead to mercury poisoning in wildlife and humans. Greenhouse gas emissions, which rose in the U.S. by 11 percent between 1990 and 1998, are also not emphasized by the EPA's report.

The EPA says it has taken several steps this year toward cleaner air, including a rule to reduce emissions from large trucks and buses, and sulfur levels in fuel. The agency has also proposed a rule that will improve views in America's national parks by controlling emissions from older power plants and industrial facilities that contribute to haze.

The EPA report, titled "Latest Findings on National Air Quality: 2000 Status and Trends," and additional information can be found at: http://www.epa.gov/airtrends