Most Everything You Know About Air Pollution Is Wrong

NCPA Study Shows How Regulators, Environmentalists and Journalists Exaggerate Levels and Risks


DALLAS (December 11, 2006) - Contrary to what many environmental activists, regulators and journalists regularly assert, air pollution is not a growing problem or a serious threat to the public's health, according to a new study from the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA).

"The truth is air quality in America's cities is better than it has ever been," said Joel Schwartz, author of the study and an adjunct scholar with the NCPA.  "Air pollution of all kinds has sharply declined because of cleaner cars, power plants, factories, home appliances and an array of consumer products."

According to the study, air pollution levels have dropped substantially. For example, from 1980 to 2005:

  • Fine particulate matter declined 40 percent and carbon monoxide concentrations fell 74 percent
  • Peak 8-hour ozone levels dropped 20 percent, and days per year exceeding the 8-hour ozone standard fell 79 percent.
  • Nitrogen dioxide levels decreased 37 percent and sulfur dioxide dropped 63 percent.

What makes these air quality improvements so extraordinary is that they occurred along with increasing motor vehicle and energy use and economic growth.  For example, during the same period automobile miles driven each year nearly doubled (93 percent), while coal burned for electricity production increased 61 percent.

Schwartz also noted that "Americans harbor health fears about air pollution that are far out of proportion to minor risks posed by current air quality."  According to the study:

  • While the incidence of asthma has nearly doubled in the last 25 years, air pollution cannot be the cause, since air pollution of all kinds declined at the same time. Emergency room visits and hospitalizations for asthma are lowest during July and August, when ozone levels are at their highest.
  • Reducing nationwide ozone from 2002 levels (the highest of the last six years) to the federal 8-hour ozone standard would reduce respiratory hospital emissions by 0.07 percent and asthma emergency room visits by only 0.04 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • Particulate matter does not kill animals in laboratory studies, even at levels many times higher than ever occur in the air we breathe. Recent studies with asthmatic human volunteers found no evidence of harm, even with particulate levels a few times greater than occur in the most polluted cities.

Regulators and activists claim low-level air pollution kills thousands of people each year, but the research evidence shows this claim is implausible.

Schwartz is a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. His book Air Quality in America, on which this study is based, will be published in 2007 by the AEI Press.