EPA: Air Quality Improves, Continues to Be a Challenge

Air quality in the United States continues to improve, but the EPA says that some types of air pollution remain a challenge in parts of the country.


It''s the classic good news/bad news scenerio.

The good news: Air quality in the United States has maintained its steady improvement through the year 2000, according to the Environmental Protection Agency''s (EPA) annual summary of air quality trends, "Latest Findings on National Air Quality: 2000 Status and Trends." The report was released yesterday.

The bad news: Certain types of air pollution "continue to present a challenge for some areas of the country," according to EPA. Progress has been slowest for smog and fine particles. While overall smog levels have decreased in the past 10 years, amounts have increased in the southern and north-central regions of the United States, says the agency.

Generally, though, the trend is toward cleaner air, according to EPA. Air quality has continued to improve since EPA''s formation in 1970, quite an accomplishment when you consider that during the same time, the gross domestic product increased 158 percent, miles traveled by cars and trucks increased 143 percent, and energy consumption increased by 45 percent.

"The Bush Administration is committed to building on the clean-air progress of the last 30 years," EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said. "One way we''re going to accomplish this is to work with Congress on a proposal for multi-emissions legislation that will further reduce air pollution from power plants while providing that industry the flexibility it needs to produce clean, efficient energy.

"We will also work with the states," said Whitman.

She noted that the National Governors Association recently adopted a policy that she called a "remarkable step forward" in reaching a national consensus on this issue. She said her agency "intends to follow the path toward common ground identified by the nation''s governors in their energy policy."

The NGA has called upon Congress to establish a flexible, market-based program to significantly reduce and cap emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury and provide market-based incentives such as emissions trading credits to help achieve the required reductions.

EPA has taken several steps this year toward cleaner air, including a rule to reduce emissions from large trucks and buses, and sulfur levels in fuel. The agency also proposed a rule that will improve views in America''s national parks by controlling emissions from older power plants and industrial facilities that contribute to haze. In addition, many private companies and other organizations are working to effectively reduce their emissions in voluntary partnerships through such programs as EPA''s Energy Star consumer product labeling initiative for energy efficiency.

The report shows the following air quality trends from 1991-2000 for the six major national air pollutants regulated by EPA under the Clean Air Act:

  • Lead concentrations decreased 50 percent;
  • Carbon monoxide concentrations decreased 41 percent;
  • Sulfur dioxide concentrations decreased 37 percent;
  • Particulate matter concentrations decreased 19 percent;
  • Nitrogen dioxide concentrations decreased 11 percent; and
  • Smog (one- hour concentrations) decreased 10 percent.

Air pollution can cause a variety of health problems, from burning eyes and irritated throats, to birth defects, brain and nerve impairment and long-term damage to the lungs. Smog, for example, can irritate the respiratory system, aggravate asthma and inflame the lining of the lung.

"Latest Findings on National Air Quality: 2000 Status and Trends," and additional detailed information can be found on www.epa.gov/airtrends.

by Sandy Smith

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