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.

The Geneva Steel Co. in Provo, Utah, provides one particularly vivid illustration. Ten years ago Dr. C. Arden Pope, an economist at Brigham Young University, got some students to start examining hospital admissions in Provo, cross-referencing them to levels of production at the Provo steel plant. The students' findings were dramatic. When Geneva Steel was running full-tilt, admissions for lung ailments shot up, with the rate doubling for young children. The test had the virtue of extreme clarity. The area is inhabited by Mormons, who don't smoke, and there is no other industry. The perpetrators were clear enough: tiny particles from the steel plant, one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair. Pope's study caused a huge commotion in the enviro-scientific and enviro-bureaucratic circles. Other studies confirmed the particularly lethal effect of fine particulates containing arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, vanadium, and zinc. The EPA's previous focus had been on large particulates, such as road dust, fly ash, cement kiln dust, and other construction-related pollution.

In anticipation of the EPA report, industry lobbies--among them the Air Quality Standards Coalition spearheaded by Geneva Steel--tried to discredit the health data and science while simultaneously stressing that the utilities, steel plants, and refineries had done all they could do, and that once again the regulatory axe should fall on the motorist and the dry cleaner down the block. Speaking for the American Petroleum Institute, Paul Bailey said that fine particulate matter was no big deal and people seemed "actually to adapt to it." Speaking for the Automobile Manufacturers, Gerald Esper said that the publicity over increased deaths caused by exposure to fine particulates was exaggerated because "many of the deaths are of elderly people and others who are sick who would have died within days anyway."

By late last summer the 1,500 page report was tossed nervously around the government, from the EPA to OMB and through Al Gore's office at the White House. The EPA's scientists recommended that standards on ozone and fine particulates be drastically tightened. Carol Browner, the EPA's head, had given herself bureaucratic cover by establishing a review group of industry scientists. The latter group recommended far more modest tightening of the standards. Browner ended up splitting the difference between the two. As a result, the EPA is estimating that somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people will continue to die each year from breathing toxic air.

During her press conference on November 29, Browner went out of her way to assure industry that the new regulations would in no way be draconian (i.e., have teeth) and that she would be pushing for "a common-sense and cost-effective option for implementation of the standards." In fact, industry seems to have won by the usual tactic of delay. The EPA's new regulations are still works in progress. We are currently in a public comment period, but it appears that cities won't have to submit plans to meet the new standards until 2002, and won't be held accountable for meeting such standards for more than a decade thereafter.

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