Our Air Is Cleaner Than Ever, So Why Do People Think It’s Getting Worse?

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Go outside and take a deep breath. The air is cleaner today than in the 47 years since the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, so why do so many Americans think the environment is getting worse?

Air pollutant concentrations and emissions have plummeted since 1970. The combined emissions of six criteria pollutants regulated monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fell 71 percent in that time.

Toxic air releases from industrial facilities are down 56 percent since 2005. Lead concentrations are down 99 percent since 1990, and carbon monoxide is down 77 percent, according to EPA.

Sulfur dioxide concentrations, which contribute to “acid rain,” are down 81 percent since 1990, and the number of days EPA considers unhealthy for “sensitive” groups is down 67 percent since 2000.

We’ve proven a prediction wrong made before the first Earth Day that “urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution” and “by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.”

The U.S. has been able to cut pollution, generate more energy and grow the economy over nearly five decades. So why do so many Americans feel like we’re the Titanic of clean air?

A recent report published by the Association of Air Pollution Control Agencies (AAPCA) found “Americans are more likely to view the environment as getting worse and express that they worry a great deal about air pollution and the environment in general.”

“Despite tremendous strides in all measures of air quality since 2000, trends in national and international surveys show that there has been little movement in American public perception about air quality,” AAPCA reported.

Based on these worries, Americans regularly support federal and state regulations on emissions from power plants, industrial facilities and vehicles.

“With media more likely to report bad news combined with often apocalyptic framing by advocates and limited understanding of technical air quality information, it is no wonder that the public is often confused about air quality in their city, county, state, and nation,” AAPCA reported.

And why wouldn’t they be?

Indeed, we are constantly inundated with headlines about how global warming is already harming air quality across the country. The frequency of alarmist headlines may rise even more in the Trump years.

“Leashes Come Off Wall Street, Gun Sellers, Polluters and More,” The New York Times reported of Trump’s deregulatory agenda. “EPA’s ability to enforce anti-pollution laws is in danger under Trump’s presidency,” echoed ThinkProgress.

Activist groups are also fueling this narrative of worsening pollution.

The American Lung Association’s recent air quality report does mention improvements in air quality, but largely focuses on the stat that 125 million Americans live with unhealthy air quality.

ALA also used the report to reiterate the need for the Clean Air Act in the face of global warming — no doubt worried about what the Trump administration will do to Obama-era regulations on coal plants. Many activists believe Trump’s rollback of environmental regulations will take us to Chinese levels of pollution.

ALA president Harold Wimmer said the “report adds to the evidence that the ongoing changes in our climate make it harder to protect human health.”

“As we move into an ever warmer climate, cleaning up these pollutants will become ever more challenging, highlighting the critical importance of protecting the Clean Air Act,” Wimmer said.

EPA itself says “[w]armer temperatures and shifting weather patterns can worsen air quality, which can lead to asthma attacks and other respiratory and cardiovascular health effects.” EPA also warns of more disease.

That’s a bleak picture.

AAPCA says state and local air agencies can counter this narrative by using “Big data” and social media to “communicate with the public about air quality.”

“[A]ir agencies need to be poised to highlight case studies, community involvement, and localized benefits,” AAPCA reports.

That may work, but perhaps take a minute to recognize how far we’ve come in cleaning up our air in nearly five decades, and remember how wrong the alarmist prophets were around the time of the first Earth Day.

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