Technology: clean air’s unsung hero


Last year, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Clean Air Act (CAA) and the 20th anniversary of the 1990 Amendments to the CAA. The CAA has been a huge success.

From 1990 to 2008, emissions of six common pollutants were down 41%, while gross domestic product grew 64%. Emissions of volatile organic compounds dropped 31%, carbon monoxide dropped 46%, and sulfur dioxide dropped 51%. Lead levels in ambient air are 92% lower today than in 1980 and nearly the entire country is meet¬ing the standards set years ago for carbon monox¬ide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Trends Data show that over the last 10 years the number of days reaching unhealthy levels of ozone and fine particulate matter has dropped by 75%. We have succeeded in reducing air toxics from industrial sources never previously regulated, and in cleaning up add rain at one-tenth the cost we predicted. We have cleaner vehicles, incentives for energy efficiency, and an environmental regulatory system thai although complicated, dearly works.

But the biggest measure of our success comes in terms of improvements to pub¬lic health. EPA has conducted a series of studies to determine the overall costs and benefits of the CAA. Each study went through extensive peer review throughout its design and imple¬mentation. The first study looked at the first 20 years of CAA im¬plementation from 1970 to 1990.' It concluded that the investments in reducing emissions under the CM over 20 years delivered S36 trillion dollars (2008$) in benefits, at a cost o( only $851 billion dollars (2008$). These benefits include reducing the inci¬dence of adverse health effects such as premature mortality, chronic respiratory illnesses, hospitalizations and emergency room visits, and other illnesses such as acute bronchitis, respiratory illness, asthma aggravation and asthma attacks, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

EPA recentfy completed a second study' that looked at the benefits of the 1990 CM Amend¬ments. It estimated mat the direct economic benefits from the 1990 Amendments reach almost $2 trilion for the year 2020, a figure mat dwarfs the direct cose of implementation ($65 bilion). These benefits indude the prevention of 230,000 premature deaths and milions of illnesses.

This success is the result of the hard work of many people over many years: the Congressmen and Senators who developed and passed the legislation; the federal, state, and local regulators who imple¬mented and enforced it the businesses mat made the necessary changes in equipment or operations; and the activists who pushed us all. But me unsung heroes of die CM are me inventors and vendors of the technologies that cleaned die air. As a long-time regulator, I know that it is easy to decide what we want to do. The real question aKvays comes down to: what can we do. The 'cans,' the options from which we decide, rely heavily on the availability and afford-ability of technology.

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