Science to Protect the Air We Breathe


Air pollution has become a worldwide preoccupation. The belching smokestacks that long symbolized
prosperity have now become a source of irritation. The foul air that had come to be accepted
as an inevitable part of city living has suddenly become intolerable. America was once on a path toward environmental
self-destruction. The industrial revolution left dirty air, environmental damage, and
serious human health problems in its wake. Then, in 1970, the United States Environmental
Protection Agency was established. Air pollution became one of EPA’s immediate priorities.
Decades of innovative research and discoveries by EPA and its partners have made our air
cleaner, healthier and safer. For centuries, populations around the world
found dirty air to be undesirable. During the mid-20th century, industrial pollution
was part of everyday life. Filthy skies were accepted as unavoidable side effects of a
thriving economy. When I was young, it was considered that dirty
air meant food on the table. Up until the 1950s, most people didn’t believe
air pollution had significant health effects, or that if it had any effects, other than
the fact it was nuisance, it was nuisance that you had to tolerate to let the economy
roll on. I just knew, that as a child, the sun didn’t
shine for days at a time, the skies were often smoky and there were times you couldn’t
see the river because there were big clouds of smoke covering everything. Soot and smog may have been signs of financial
health, but they also brought serious health problems to communities. In 1948, at the end of October. . .a small
steel town of Donora, PA was enveloped in a smog. It wasn’t the usual type of fog.
It was a combination of smoke and fumes from the Coke ovens, the rolling mills, the steel
mills, the many coal-fired stoves in the town. And the pollution sat like a lid on a pot
and didn’t move. The four-day air pollution disaster killed
40 people and left half of the town’s population with respiratory problems. Dirty air that plagued cities and towns through
the 50s and 60s fueled public concern. Outraged citizens staged protests. Communities passed
local ordinances in an attempt to curb air pollution. Congress was compelled to act. In 1967, the
Clean Air Act was passed. Three years later, major amendments to the Act were made and
EPA was established. This laid the groundwork for national environmental regulations —
including those for air quality. These were important first steps, but science
was urgently needed. Since 1970, EPA researchers have investigated
dangerous air pollutants and provided the scientific foundation for regulations and
solutions to reduce them. One of the first air pollutants to be scientifically
investigated by the EPA was sulfur dioxide, a major contributor to acid rain. While industry emitted large amounts of sulfur
dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere, little was known about its ecological consequences.
EPA research indicated that these pollutants fell with rain, affecting forests, contaminating
and killing water bodies and corroding structures and cultural artifacts. Acid rain was something that increased people’s
awareness of how air pollution could affect the environment in the 1970’s. The scientific discoveries about acid rain
led to regulatory action that significantly reduced the problem. There was a combination of high emissions
transported far enough to affect sensitive regions. And it was a big, big issue in the
1970’s and 1980’s that led directly to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. But acid rain was not the only air pollution
problem tackled by EPA scientists. Industrial accidents that released toxic gases
drew public attention to hazardous air pollutants. EPA scientists responded by conducting experiments
that showed serious health problems from exposure to these pollutants, affecting the lungs,
brain and heart. As science uncovered these health risks, more
needed to be done to protect the public. In 1990, amendments to the Clean Air Act led
to the use of state-of-the-art control technology to reduce these hazardous air pollutants. Amid efforts to study acid rain and hazardous
air pollutants, EPA researchers also began rigorous investigation into another potential
health threat: ozone. Ozone is formed when air pollutants are emitted
from cars, trucks and other sources and react in the presence of sunlight. Ozone many miles above us in the stratosphere
protects us from solar radiation. But ozone down at ground level where we inhale it causes
damage to our lungs. Ozone is oxygen gone bad. Initially, ozone was considered to be an urban
problem. In cities like Los Angeles, concentrated traffic spewed massive amounts of car exhaust
into the air. Later, as suburbs grew, the problem spread
and ground level ozone became a national concern. EPA scientists investigated. They found that
breathing ground level ozone could trigger a range of health problems from minor throat
irritation to reduced lung function and inflammation in airway tissues. As science revealed ozone’s impact on human
health, EPA regulators established standards to reduce ozone. High ozone levels in cities
like Los Angeles began to decline. However, a new problem became apparent. EPA researchers did a series of studies that
asked the question, was it harmful for people to be exposed to these lower levels of ozone,
but for many hours. And the answer was it was, and as a result of that EPA modified
their standard to protect those people who were in cities that didn’t have large peaks
of ozone, but instead had lower levels of ozone for many hours. Today, EPA and its partners continue to research
ozone pollution, including its formation, in an ongoing effort to protect the public
from its harmful effects. In the 1990’s, health researchers uncovered
another airborne threat, which many felt had been solved with reductions of visible smoke
and acid rain. This threat, particulate matter, also known as particle pollution or PM somehow
appeared to be causing people to die. EPA rapidly turned its attention to studying
these particles, not because all of the important questions with ozone had been answered, but
more as a realization that for public health benefits, we really needed to understand whether
particles were killing people and if so, how. Particle pollution is an airborne mixture
of liquid droplets and particles of all sizes. They range in size from 1/10th the size of
a human hair to 1/10,000th the diameter of a human hair. It was massive amounts of these small particles
that contributed to unsightly white and brown haze that hung over cities and many of the
nation’s scenic areas in the 70’s. Visibility is one of those things everybody
can appreciate. If you see it, maybe it’s bad for you. When regulations improved visibility through
the next decade, many thought the particle problem was resolved. It wasn’t until almost
10 years later when new ways to analyze contemporary health data were developed that the health
effects of PM became apparent. A landmark study in Utah Valley alerted the
world to the dangers of particle pollution. Researcher Arden Pope found that there were
fewer deaths and hospitalizations when a local steel mill closed due to a strike. EPA scientists
examined particles collected during this time and found that their toxicity was greatest
when the steel mill was open. The combination of epidemiologic results and
experimental results provided quite compelling evidence that particulate pollution, at least
in that specific environment, had real, measurable, observable effects on human health. Meanwhile, EPA and partner scientists discovered
that the size of particles and their deposition in the respiratory tract was directly related
to their potential harm. The smallest particles had the most damaging lung effects and also
caused heart problems. We’ve come to realize that these aren’t
just lung effects. These are cardiac effects. And we had not appreciated prior to these
studies that there were potential cardiac heart effects associated with air pollution. These and other similar findings provided
the scientific foundation for stronger PM standards that continue to have immense public
health benefits. The Office of Management and Budget estimated
in 2007 that the cost of cleaning up particles over the previous 10 years provides an estimated
savings in terms of health impacts between 4 and 40 billion dollars a year. All regulations pale by comparison to the
impacts, the benefits associated with PM. The science shows that reducing airborne PM
improves health. A seminal study partially funded by EPA and
published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January 2009 found that the cumulative
efforts of EPA’s air quality research and regulations increased the average U.S. life
span by 5 months. It turned out that cities that had large improvements
in air quality also had relatively large improvements in life expectancy, even after controlling
for sociodemographic variables, smoking and other variables. One of the biggest remaining research challenges
for EPA scientists is to understand pollution mixtures in the atmosphere, which can contain
thousands of chemicals. So it’s time we start to look at the multipollutant
environment. Which is very difficult, because as you might expect, when you talk about multipollutants,
you can change one, and then you have a new mix. So you have an infinite number of combinations. EPA scientists are beginning to explore the
nature of these mixtures to see if they pose even greater health risks than individual
pollutants alone. A new series of studies underway by EPA adopts
this multipollutant approach by investigating the health impacts of living and working near
busy roadways. The multipollutant approach requires collaborative
research across scientific disciplines — from physics and chemistry to biology and
ecology. EPA is also working to incorporate social sciences into air science, a necessary
step in achieving sustainability. Multipollutant research will be vital to tackling
a new and pressing issue: climate change and its interaction with air pollution. There is plenty of evidence to show that climate
change is upon us and it will continue to change. Well that changes the dynamics of
the multipollutant environment. EPA scientists have already provided evidence
that future temperature increases will raise air pollution levels in some parts of the
country. But, there is more work to be done. Air pollution
research is needed to address climate change interactions, pollution mixtures and other
complex air quality problems we face today. As we strive for a sustainable future, EPA
will remain at the forefront of air pollution research – investigating problems, creating
solutions, and providing the tools and data needed to protect the air we breathe. It’s fair to say that EPA and related research
that helps us understand effects of air pollution does impact human health, it has saved lives
and will continue to do so. I think every American should know that air
pollution is not required for our economic health. We are very fortunate, really, as
a country to have the EPA which is helping us inform our regulations with good sound
science by their own internal research and the extramural research that involves the
best researchers in the nation.

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