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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Warning: Breathing Air Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Air Date: Week of

Last year some 64,000 deaths were attributed to effects of air pollution. Daniel Grossman reports from Boston on some technological fixes to this rampant public health problem being recommended by the EPA.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(People gathering.)

DeVILLERS: Good morning. My name is John DeVillers. I'm the administrator of the EPA's New England office...

CURWOOD: On a chilly winter day in Boston recently, scores of citizens packed a conference room in a downtown hotel. They came to sound off about a controversial and far-reaching proposal to help clean the nation's air.

WOMAN: We tell our children not to smoke. And then we send them out to play in an environment where at times breathing the air is equivalent to smoking a half pack of cigarettes.

CURWOOD: The US Environmental Protection Agency wants to set new limits on tiny particles of soot and dust produced mostly by vehicle exhaust and industrial smokestacks. The government has proposed these rules in the wake of new studies that tie fine particulates to thousands of hospitalizations and deaths. But some producers of particulate pollution say the government is acting hastily, and they're vowing to fight the new regulations. Daniel Grossman reports from Boston.

(Traffic sounds, including heavy industrial)

GROSSMAN: At a congested intersection near downtown Boston, auto exhaust and black truck smoke mingle and then dissipate in the breeze. On some days exhaust from these vehicles, combined with pollution from local industries and distant power plants, create a noxious mixture barely fit for human lungs. But this is the air people here breathe. And this intersection is the entrance to Boston Medical Center's Adult Asthma Clinic.

NURSE: How is your breathing in terms of shortness of breath or wheezing or coughing, tightness in your chest?

SPRING: I had a couple of days, like Thursday...

GROSSMAN: Inside, 55-year-old Helen Spring is receiving a routine checkup. She feels good today, but often with little warning her asthma kicks up.

SPRING: It feels like someone's got your lungs and they're tying them in knots, and you just can't, and then you start gasping for breath. And then all of a sudden there's none there, and you need help to breathe.

GROSSMAN: A nurse pulls out Mrs. Spring's pink sweatshirt, presses a stethoscope against her back, and takes a listen.

NURSE: Big breath.

(Spring inhales, exhales)

NURSE: Big breath. All right.

GROSSMAN: Like others here, Mrs. Spring can easily recall breathing troubles brought on by dirty air.

SPRING: When we got stuck in traffic, it was like a Saturday morning, and the fumes from the cars, by the time I got to the hospital I was in the hospital for 5 days later, because of the pollution from the cars and the trucks.

GROSSMAN: Helen Spring's case is not unusual. In the past several years, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have found that children, the elderly, as well as patients with troubled breathing, are put at risk by polluted air. The chief culprit, they're discovered, is soot and dust, known as particle pollution. Harvard epidemiologist Doug Dockery is one of the nation's leading experts on pollution and health.

DOCKERY: We've observed, on days following episodes of high particle pollution, there are more people coming into the hospital with respiratory illnesses, with cardiovascular illnesses. There are more people coming to the emergency rooms following these particulate air pollution episodes.

GROSSMAN: From his 14th-floor office at the Public Health School's Boston campus, Professor Dockery has a panoramic view. From his desk he can see many of the region's sources of particle pollution, like industrial smokestacks, wood stove chimneys, and major highways. In the early 1990s, studies here substantiated what doctors had long suspected: that on days when particle pollution is high, there is an immediate increase in deaths.

DOCKERY: We can see increased numbers of people dying as a result of cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease.

GROSSMAN: But the studies didn't tell researchers if those who were struck down were terminal patients with only a few days to live, or relatively healthy individuals. The answer came in a 1993 study that followed 8,000 adults in 6 cities for nearly 20 years. It was authored by Professor Dockery.

DOCKERY: Between the cleanest and the dirtiest community that we looked out, there was a difference of 2 to 3 years in reduced life expectancy, which is actually a very substantial amount.

GROSSMAN: Professor Dockery estimated that airborne soot and dust put residents of the dirtiest city, Steubenville, Ohio, at a 26% greater risk of premature death than inhabitants of the cleanest city. This finding and results from related studies are the basis of new estimates that particle pollution kills at least 64,000 Americans every year. Researchers at Harvard also discovered that some particles are more deadly than others. Large, coarse particles are primarily made of ground stone and dirt. The finest particles, less than 2.5 microns across, or one tenth the thickness of a human hair, are created when things burn, like coal in a power plant or fuel in a truck. And they often contain toxic metals and acids. Because fine particles are so small, they evade biological defenses like nose hairs and are breathed deeply into the lungs. Professor Dockery says his 6-city study confirmed earlier research on particle size.

DOCKERY: When we've compared small particles to the larger particles in terms of their effect on mortality or hospital admissions or changes in pulmonary function or any of the many health effects we've looked at, the observed associations are with the measures of small particles.

GROSSMAN: While the EPA has regulated coarse particles since the 1970s, there are no rules specifically addressing find particle pollution. That could change. Last fall for the first time, the Agency drafted daily and annual limits on the amount of fine particle pollution permitted. Mary Nichols is the Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for air and radiation.

NICHOLS: We began this process because there was the mounting body of evidence that we were probably not focusing most of our attention on the most important form of air pollution that's out there in the community.

GROSSMAN: Actually, that's only half the story. The EPA didn't act until a Federal judge forced the Agency to consider the studies done at Harvard and elsewhere. Ron White is a top official at the American Lung Association.

WHITE: The American Lung Association was compelled to sue the Agency several times, not only on the particulate level of standards but on other standards as well, in order to force them to review the most recent scientific information, which we believe demonstrates that the current standards are not protective of public health.

GROSSMAN: But so far, hardly anyone is happy with what the EPA is proposing. Ron White, like many health activists, says the rules are too weak, and recommends stiffer standards.

WHITE: The bottom line is that about 89 million people would not be protected from levels that we certainly believe would be unhealthy under the EPA proposal. And that includes, literally, tens of millions of people who are sensitive to air pollution.

GROSSMAN: The industries most responsible for particle pollution, including many petrochemical companies, utilities, and steel producers, say the rules would be too expensive.

DRY: This could be the costliest regulation that has ever been imposed on US industry.

GROSSMAN: Owen Dry is an official with the American Manufacturers Association.

DRY: From every indication, this could eclipse the amount that's spent every year on the total Clean Air Act. Which we're talking in the hundreds of billions range.

GROSSMAN: The EPA says it would cost much less, 6 to 8 billion, to comply with the proposal and new ozone rules also under consideration. But there is little question that cutting back on fine particle pollution will not be easy. Since coal-fired power plants are by far the largest single source of particle pollution, they might be required to get new stack scrubbers, or use cleaner-burning fuels. It might also take replacing many of the nation's dirty diesel engines. The industry's Owen Dry says such requirements would be too extreme, since he says particle pollution has not been proven conclusively to cause illness and death.

DRY: At this point it's a speculation. And there's such a great potential that it is the wrong pollutant which EPA is attempting to regulate, that I don't believe the American public is willing to take the gamble that EPA is correct on this one.

GROSSMAN: Industry nay-sayers often prefer to wait until the final word is in before acting. But in this case, the evidence that fine particle pollution is unsafe appears overwhelming.

NICHOLS: This is very similar to the debate that went on around the linkage between smoking and lung cancer.

GROSSMAN: The EPA's Mary Nichols acknowledges that some questions remain. But she says waiting for certainty has its own risks.

NICHOLS: It was many, many years after the link was very well established before scientists were confident that they understood exactly how the smoke was causing the lung cancer. But the issue here is not really whether science is good. The issue is whether you have enough science based on the epidemiology to say as a society, we should be doing something about limiting the amount of these particles that we're exposing our population to.

GROSSMAN: And there are ways to reduce particle pollution that may not be all that hard. Attorney David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council says one place to start is on urban streets.

HAWKINS: One of the things that is one of the most obvious to anyone who walks down city streets is doing something about polluting diesel buses and trucks. These vehicles are basically filthy. We know how to clean them up. We can modify the fuel they use. We can require the engines to be built cleaner, and we can require them to be maintained in a cleaner fashion.

(Shuttle engine running)

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Logan International Airport. This shuttle service is provided free for your comfort and convenience. If you would like...

GROSSMAN: Cities are already beginning to replace belching diesel buses with cleaner models. In Boston, 6 natural gas shuttles carry travelers to their flights. These buses look and sound like any coach, but their exhaust contains one tenth as many particles.

ANNOUNCER: The next stop is Terminal C, serving Delta Airlines, Delta Connection Com Air, Delta...

GROSSMAN: Some urban areas could cut particle pollution by nearly half in one fell swoop by replacing their fleets of diesel buses. Besides the natural gas vehicles, Boston's Logan Airport has 25 shuttles that use a cleaner blend of diesel. Many cities have even more ambitious programs including Houston, Sacramento, and Seattle. New York is about to purchase 500 low-pollution models.

(Shuttle engine revs up)

GROSSMAN: The EPA plans to announce a final rule in June. If the standards are issued, it will be up to states to craft nuts and bolts plans to achieve the pollution limits. But industry lobbyists are waging a fierce campaign to avoid these new rules. The battle has spilled into the halls of Congress, where Senator John Chaffee, a Republican many environmentalists consider an ally, has raised serious doubts about the draft regulations and has asked EPA Administrator Carol Browner to defend them in an upcoming hearing. Washington insiders say the final decision may be made behind closed doors in the White House. In his first administration, President Clinton was reluctant to antagonize industry with expensive regulations. The proposal may be an early environmental test of his second administration.

(Belching buses)

GROSSMAN: Whatever happens, it's likely it will still be years before commuters, like those on this Boston street corner, can breathe easier.

(Traffic sounds; horns)

GROSSMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.



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