clean air actEnvironmental legislation is always tough to draft, agree on, and enforce. So shouldn't we congratulate the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which recently celebrated 40 years of its Clean Air Act? The Clean Air Act was signed by President Richard Nixon on December 31, 1970, and was intended as a landmark in solving the problems of air pollution and water pollution for the American people. The Clean Air Act was amended and updated in 1990, with overwhelming bipartisan support. At a recent symposium in Washington EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson counted the achievements in limiting air pollution of the Clean Air Act in its first 20 years (from a report made to Congress by the EPA in 1997). The positive impact that resulted from people being exposed to less particle and gas pollution include the prevention of:

  • 205,000 premature deaths
  • 672,000 cases of chronic bronchitis
  • 21,000 cases of heart disease
  • 843,000 asthma attacks
  • 18 million child respiratory illnesses
  • 10.4 million lost IQ points in children (from reductions in lead emissions which otherwise affect the brain)

These benefits have occurred because 1.7 million tons of toxic emissions have been removed from American air every year since 1990 and, in the last two decades, emissions of six common pollutants are down by 41%. Data from 2006 to 2008 shows that ozone air quality improved in 95 of the 126 areas previously designated to be in non-attainment for ozone air quality standards. Most of the United States is now meeting air quality targets set for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and sulphur dioxide. Lead levels in the air have decreased too, which has reduced the number of children with IQs less than 70 as a result of lead poisoning. A preliminary analysis by EPA shows that in 2010, Clean Air Act fine particles and ozone programmes implemented since the 1990 amendments will prevent as many as 160,000 premature deaths. 'We are a stronger, healthier and more prosperous nation because of the Clean Air Act,' Ms. Jackson concluded.

Of course, there is still much to be done. When the EPA's new vehicle and fuel rules are fully implemented in 2030, this will produce $186 billion in air quality and health benefits, with only $11 billion in costs, which makes for a 16 to 1 benefit/cost ratio. The above figures, if they work out, should give critics of environmental legislation pause for thought. When the Clean Air Act came first into force, those against the idea of limiting air pollution argued that the costs of compliance would stifle business and kill jobs. In fact, as Jackson argues, the Clean Air Act has been a good investment in so many ways. Every dollar in compliance costs spent on cleaning the air as part of the Clean Air Act is returned 40-fold in terms of health and environmental benefits.

The critics have not gone away, however. Their current tack is to block EPA's attempts to use the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But the White House says President Obama is to veto any attempts to restrict the EPA in this matter.

What do you think? Is clean air worth fighting for? Let us know.