Some of the nation's largest companies, including Ford and Exxon, have come together with the government to create a new air pollution research program called the National Environmental Respiratory Center (NERC).
Located at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute (LRRI) in Albuquerque, N.M., this research and information center concentrates on how the large number of different particles, gases and vapors in the air work together to affect public health.
Air pollution is an ever-changing mixture of many contaminants from many natural and manmade sources, despite the fact that air pollution research, debates, and regulations have historically focused on one pollutant or source at a time.
"Nobody ever breathed only one pollutant at a time, and it's a good bet that the health effects associated with dirty air can never really be understood by studying one pollutant at time, said Dr. Joe Mauderly, NERCE director and air pollution scientist.
In 1998, Congress designated NERC in the EPA budget, reflecting frustration over the large scientific uncertainties revealed during debate of the recent new standards for ozone and airborne particles.
Other federal agencies and some states have also recognized the problem and appear ready to join in the effort.
"Debates about air pollutants and their sources tend to occur in a one-at-a-time, 'revolving door' pattern, so research has also been conducted in this manner," explained Mauderly. "Until now, there was no serious effort to get our hands around the real problem."
"Air quality is an emotional issue," said Dr. Robert Rubin, president of LRRI, the country's only independent, nonprofit research group focused entirely on respiratory diseases and lung health risks. "Research that will bring better facts to the table and enable regulation to be based on sound research is very important to the respiratory health of the nation."
The new alliance among independent researchers, government and industry is working to reveal the effects of complex pollutant mixtures, including some contaminants for which no regulations exist.
The first group of complex pollutant atmospheres to be studied over the next few years include: engine and power plant emissions; wood and tobacco smoke; cooking fumes, and road dust.
If the strategy is successful, it will be expanded to include other pollutants, such as pollens and other natural materials that are not emitted by any source but result from reactions in the air.