Blowing Smoke: How the Buck is Passed on Air Quality

When Bill Clinton journeyed to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon this fall to preside over the creation of a new national monument, he quipped to reporters that it was disappointing there was so much fog in Arizona. He complained that he could hardly see across the giant chasm. That wasn't fog, Mr. President, it was smog, clogging the air in one of the most remote and least populated areas in North America.

Grand Canyon is not the only national park threatened by bad air. In the parks of the California Sierras, King's Canyon, Yosemite, and Sequoia, the toxic compounds in the air are stunting tree growth and killing alpine flora. Similar situations afflict Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Mesa Verde in Colorado, and Quatico-Superior, the luscious country of forests and lakes on the Minnesota and Canadian border.

The situation in America's cities is even worse. In places such as Salt Lake City and Minneapolis, more children are getting sick and more elderly people are dying from just breathing the air than at any time since the mid-1960s. Yet the deterioration of America's air has aroused little attention from the nation's major media outlets.

Indeed, one of the least covered environmental stories of 1996 was the EPA's announcement of new air pollution standards, proclaimed on a hot news day: the Friday after Thanksgiving, November 29, when most Americans were out shopping their way into the next holiday. On that Friday the EPA finally delivered its long-awaited new report on air quality, concentrating on smog and soot. The EPA's last assessment was in 1987.

Industry had been awaiting the EPA report, which was ordered by a federal court in 1992 after a successful suit by the American Lung Association and a coalition of environmental groups, with considerable nervousness. And with good reason.

The story begins more than 20 years ago, in the policy battles preceding the passage of the Clean Air Act. Environmental policymakers and their scientific advisers were looking at two principal classes of compounds fueling the smog process: hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides.

No doubt 20 years of environmental regulation have reduced hydrocarbons, but no one has yet demonstrated that the air is less toxic as a consequence. Such legacies of bureaucratized science as catalytic converters on cars, for example, may have engendered greater toxicity, as early tests on rats--sedulously ignored--suggest.

Now the particles have come home to kill; our air is indeed becoming more toxic. No fewer than 185 different scientific studies all tend to that conclusion. Around 60,000 Americans die prematurely every year from respiratory illnesses and heart attacks linked to fine particle exposure. Some 250,000 children a year fall victim to aggravated asthma and other respiratory disorders caused by breathing toxic air, and the rate has increased by 11 percent since 1980. Respiratory problems are now the leading cause of hospital admissions of children. In all, nearly 74 million Americans are daily exposed to harmful levels of particulate air pollution.

In the 1970s the bureaucrats decided that it would be easier to control hydrocarbons as emitted in vapors of various solvents, including benzene, kerosene, gasoline, and partially burned fuel in automobile exhaust. Regulation would be a matter of controlling nozzles at the gas pumps, adding tailpipe catalysts to burn unused fuel, controlling the vapors in dry cleaning shops, and so forth.

This option seemed simpler than what would be required for even a minimal assault on oxides of nitrogen, generated by combustion of fuels such as coal, gas, kerosene, and crude oil, and controlled by lowering the temperature of combustion. Simpler maybe, but wrong. As a 1992 study sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences showed, two decades' worth of stringent regulatory effort on hydrocarbons has yielded very little in the reduction of air pollution--certainly nothing like the progress predicted.

One consequence of the faulty bureaucratic model, as mentioned above, was the modern car equipped with its catalytic converter. The converter further oxidizes the incompletely burned fuel--that is, hydrocarbons--in the raw exhaust. These hydrocarbons are burned with the help of the platinum catalyst (which explains why the converter gets so hot).

But the converter also acts as a catalyst on sulfur, a component of all gasoline. In the combustion process this sulfur is rendered into sulfur dioxide, which, as it crosses the platinum in the catalytic converter, becomes sulfur trioxide; with the addition of water (another consequence of gasoline combustion), it becomes sulfuric acid. All cars equipped with catalytic converters are miniature sulfuric acid factories. None of the classic families of toxic compounds in smog is composed of sulfates. Release sulfuric acid into urban air laden with metal particles and you produce metallic sulfates, many of which are toxic.

So although the supposedly virtuous modern car, equipped with its catalytic converter, may produce fewer hydrocarbons in toto than old clunkers, the hydrocarbons that it releases are more reactive, as can be sensed by sniffing a modern car's exhaust, which is far more irritating to the nose. Nor is an old car a sulfuric acid factory.

Industry's nervousness at the EPA review of air quality stemmed from the fact that the early decision to go easy on oxides of nitrogen meant in effect giving a pass to the utilities, incineration plants, and oil refineries. But it's clear now that if air quality is to be improved, these industries must be targeted.

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