In 1948, a severe bout of smog killed 20 people and sickened 7,000 in the small town of Donora, Pennsylvania. The fatal air pollution, spurred by a steel mill, was not unheard of during the time, but it catalyzed a national movement for better air. Two years later, President Harry Truman called the first national air pollution conference. By 1963, Congress had passed the Clean Air Act.
More than six decades later—despite significant progress—air pollution continues to be a problem, with more than 40 percent of Americans still exposed to unhealthy air. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump has decided to pose an arbitrary threshold by which to define unhealthy air in order to protect fossil fuel companies and their unchecked emissions. Given that science has confirmed that no level of polluted air can be healthy, this will not only threaten us now, but for generations to come.
“The newer science seems to show effects at lower and lower levels of pollution,” said Edward Avol, a professor of clinical preventive medicine at the Environmental Health Sciences Center at the University of Southern California. “The EPA is saying ‘we don’t care about that anymore’.”
Avol, who served on panels that advised both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, pointed to the mounting evidence that even minor amounts of air pollution can cause premature deaths, impacting heart health, asthma rates, and even cognitive performance. This is particularly dangerous for children and the elderly, since both are more vulnerable to pollutants. Stories of families that have moved because of air pollution are cropping up, most recently in California, where corporate entities exacerbate wildfires.
“The EPA is saying ‘we don’t care about that anymore’.”
The U.S. already uses a significant amount of health spending on air pollution-related injuries. According to a Rand report that looked at hospital admissions, the state of California alone could have saved upwards of $193 million if air quality improved. And Columbia University’s Steve Cohen pointed out that the U.S. investment of $65 billion to clean up air has resulted in $1.5 trillion in economic benefits in the form of health and workforce savings.
The EPA’s new lowered standards will burden communities of color and poor people the most. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year found that pollution caused by the consumption of fossil fuels by non-Hispanic white people impacted Black and Latino populations the most. And the people most impacted by coal plant and mining emissions, which the administration is seeking to protect, are also largely in financially strapped communities.
These policy changes build on the Trump administration’s deliberate decimation of environmental protections. The move to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era strategy for implementing renewable energy, started soon after the 2016 election. And some Republican representatives have been trying to dismantle the EPA altogether. The real-life impacts of these moves are far-reaching, from cases of sulfur dioxide poisoning in communities in Houston to increased levels of arsenic and mercury in West Virginia waterways.
“The mindset of the federal government [in the past] was in the mode of health protection,” Avol said about the Bush and Obama administrations. “They were open to the consideration that this might mean hard and expensive decisions. With this current administration, that’s not the case.”
Perhaps the scariest part of this anti-science rhetoric is that we still don’t know the extent of the impacts that our air quality and environment has on our health. A Lancet piece pointed out that there are more than 140,000 new chemicals since 1950, and fewer than half have been tested. That means the U.S. is exposing people to more pollution before it knows what that pollution is comprised of.
Meanwhile, cities and states are struggling to protect their air quality in the face of negligence at the federal level. New York recently passed congestion pricing, a traffic control measure that is also meant to curb car-induced emissions. St. Petersburg, Florida, committed to a full renewable energy transition. Even Washington, D.C., enjoyed some of its cleanest air reported in 2017 after citywide policies to reduce traffic and carbon emissions.
But they’re up against an administration that is actively erasing more than 60 years of pollution legislation—and keen on protecting the same industries that once plagued the people of Donora.