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The Year in Science: Environment 1997

Uncleared Air

By Catherine Dold
Jan 1, 1998 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:29 AM


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On a Wednesday morning nearly 50 years ago, a heavy smog settled on the Pennsylvania town of Donora. At first, residents simply remarked on a few sore throats. By Friday, however, hundreds of people were seriously ill. By Sunday, 19 were dead.

Such smog disasters helped persuade the government to start controlling air pollution. Federal laws were passed—most notably the 1970 Clean Air Act—and as a result many people now assume that death by smog is a thing of the past.

Not quite. Some pollutants are safely under control, but others are still killing, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which this past year proposed to tackle them. The worst are fine particulates—grit and chemicals that travel deep into the lungs. By aggravating heart and lung disease, says the epa, fine particulates contribute to 60,000 deaths a year in the United States. Two large health studies reviewed by the agency found that residents of towns with high particulate levels were 17 to 26 percent more likely to die prematurely than were residents of cleaner towns.

The rules proposed by the epa last July would regulate fine particulate emissions for the first time. They would also strengthen controls on ground-level ozone, which the epa said causes hundreds of thousands of cases of respiratory illness each year. The epa claimed the new rules would prevent 15,000 deaths, 350,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and a million cases of decreased lung function in children. The price would be $9.7 billion a year for controls on diesel motor vehicles, power plants, and other sources.

Not surprisingly, the price seems too high to industry groups, which challenged the epa’s interpretation of the studies. There is no credible basis to believe that the proposed standards [on particulates] will produce any measurable health benefits, said the American Petroleum Institute. As the year ended, the debate was unresolved, and Congress was considering bills to delay the epa rules until more research is done.

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