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Seven Threats to the Nation's Air Quality

The nation has made significant strides to clean up the air we breathe over the past two decades since our first "State of the Air" Report. Serious challenges remain, especially tackling the growing threats from climate change. Cleaning up air pollution requires a strong, coordinated effort on the part of our federal, state, tribal and local leaders. Stopping or retreating cannot be an option.

Unfortunately, this Administration has focused on steps to roll back or create loopholes in core healthy air protections put in place to comply with the Clean Air Act. These attacks began under the former U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and have continued and expanded under the current Administrator, Andrew Wheeler.  Not only has this Administration targeted specific Clean Air Act safeguards for rollbacks, it has also sought to weaken the scientific review and undermine the basis for current and future protections.

Below are seven key threats to the nation's progress toward cleaner, healthier air. The Lung Association strongly opposes these actions that pave the way for more pollution in the air we breathe, and we hope you will speak up for healthy air as well.

Threat 1: Repealing plans to reduce carbon pollution from power plants

The American Lung Association opposes efforts to repeal the Clean Power Plan and will continue to push for a system-wide reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

To protect public health, the nation must act to fight climate change. This means dramatically cutting carbon pollution. Unfortunately, the current EPA has taken steps to dismantle our nation’s best federal plan to limit carbon pollution from power plants, the Clean Power Plan, and has proposed a weaker approach that would increase harmful emissions.

Scientists tell us that carbon pollution contributes to a warming climate, enhancing conditions for ozone formation and making it harder to reduce this lethal pollutant. The increased ozone problems reflected in this year’s report came in large part because 2015, 2016, and 2017 represent the three warmest years in global history.1  Climate change also leads to particle pollution from worsened droughts and wildfires, leading to many of the high particle pollution days recorded in 2015-2017 and documented in this report.

Power plants comprise the largest stationary source of carbon pollution in the United States.  The electric sector produced 28.4 percent of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, with coal-fired power plants contributing approximately 67 percent of those emissions.2  These utilities emitted 24 percent of the total industrial carbon dioxide emissions in 2016.3

The current Administration has proposed to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the only nationwide plan to clean up carbon pollution from these power plants. Adopted in 2015, the Clean Power Plan delivered a flexible, practical toolkit for states to reduce carbon pollution from power plants approximately 32 percent (below 2005 levels) by 2030. States could choose a variety of ways to cut carbon pollution, including requiring cleaner fuels for existing utilities, improving energy efficiency, producing more clean energy or partnering with other states to jointly reduce carbon pollution.

Reducing carbon to tackle climate change was only one of the anticipated benefits from the Clean Power Plan. Steps to reduce carbon using the tools in the Clean Power Plan also reduce other air pollutants that themselves worsen asthma, cause cardiovascular harm and cause premature deaths. EPA’s original analysis estimated that reducing these other pollutants would prevent up to 3,600 premature deaths and up to 90,000 asthma attacks in children in 2030.4 In an updated analysis in 2017 published along with EPA’s proposal to repeal the Plan, the Agency projected even greater benefits from putting the Plan in place, including preventing up to 4,500 premature deaths in 2030.5

Even though EPA has proposed to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Clean Air Act still requires that the agency reduce carbon pollution, which means that EPA must clean up carbon pollution from power plants. In August 2018, EPA proposed a dangerous replacement, called the “Affordable Clean Energy (ACE)” Rule. The ACE plan only sets minimal limits on carbon emissions at power plants themselves, rejecting the approach of the Clean Power Plan that embraced a wide range of solutions to reduce carbon emissions from the entire electrical system. The ACE rule is especially dangerous because, not only would the plan have far less impact on reducing carbon pollution, independent scientists found that this type of approach could actually increase emissions of at least one other dangerous air pollutant, and, with that, increase the risk of premature deaths and asthma attacks.6 In short, EPA’s proposed replacement for the Clean Power Plan could be worse than doing nothing at all.

The Lung Association spoke out in opposition to the ACE proposal with our medical and health partners7 and will continue to oppose efforts to repeal the Clean Power Plan. The nation urgently needs a system-wide reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and other sources to combat climate change. 

Threat 2: Removing limits on methane and other emissions from oil and gas operations

To protect public health, the nation must act to fight climate change; core to that is cutting carbon pollution. Unfortunately, the current EPA has taken steps that would dismantle our nation's first and only federal plan to limit carbon pollution from power plants.

Scientists tell us that carbon pollution contributes to a warming climate, enhancing conditions for ozone formation and making it harder to reduce this lethal pollutant. The increased ozone problems reflected in this year's report came in large part because 2016 was the second warmest year in U.S. history. Climate change also leads to particle pollution from increased droughts and wildfires, leading to many of the high particle-pollution days recorded in 2014-2016 also documented in this report.

Rolling back limits on emissions from oil and gas operations means more people will be forced to breathe cancer-causing emissions and other toxic gases that also worsen ozone and climate change.

Currently, EPA provides only minimal protection from emissions from the existing oil and gas infrastructure. Oil and gas production wells, processing plants, transmission pipelines and storage units have long emitted harmful gases, including methane, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants. For the last few years, "State of the Air" has reported elevated levels of unhealthy ozone in places where oil and gas production has expanded, even in largely rural counties in the West. Despite this, in 2018, EPA proposed steps to weaken or roll back health-protective standards the agency had adopted in 2016 to reduce harmful emissions of these gases from new and modified sources within the oil and natural gas industry.8 EPA also stated that the agency will consider weakening this rule even further with additional changes, including changes specifically weakening limits on greenhouse gas emissions.9

Strong standards would not only help to mitigate climate change and its associated health risks by curtailing emissions of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas, but would also limit emissions of major precursors to ozone, as well as other toxic and carcinogenic air pollutants, benefiting public health in communities across the country.

EPA even reversed course on a 2016 effort to collect data from the oil and gas industry about the location and size of their facilities. Gathering this information is an essential step for EPA to more fully understand and eventually limit harmful emissions from these existing sources. However, after industry objected, in March 2017 EPA withdrew its request for updated information on these facilities.

EPA's efforts to roll back these protections reflect a much higher priority on eliminating so-called "burdensome regulations" on polluters than protecting the health of the American people.10

Threat 3: Opening doors for more polluting cars and trucks

More polluting cars. In 2018, EPA and the Department of Transportation proposed new rules to weaken limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars, SUVs, and personal trucks. Labeling their proposal the "Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule," the agencies are seeking to roll back limits for greenhouse gas emissions and standards for fuel economy that were adopted in 2012 and are scheduled to go into place for model year 2021-2025 vehicles.

Together with rules that apply to model years 2017-2020 vehicles, these limits would cut 6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

The rollback also attacks states' rights to set stronger standards to protect their residents. Under the Clean Air Act, California has the right to establish its own emission standards for cars and trucks. Other states have the option of adopting California's standards, and many have done so. California's ability to set more protective emissions standards has helped drive lifesaving reductions in harmful pollution from vehicles nationwide; maintaining this authority is critical.

The Lung Association has strongly opposed these proposed rollbacks and recruited nearly 100 national, state and local health organizations to join comments to EPA in opposition.

EPA's proposed glider loophole exempts trucks that emit up to 450 times more than other diesel trucks from having to clean up.

Dirtiest diesel. Pollution from heavy-duty diesel trucks causes cancer, heart attacks, asthma attacks and premature death.  Thanks to long-adopted requirements for cleaner fuels and engines, people living near heavily traveled highways and busy city streets have had to breathe less of these dangerous emissions.  But now, that progress is threatened by a loophole that the current EPA has tried to open.

The loophole benefits "gliders." "Gliders" is the name used for trucks that embed an old, dirty engine in a new truck body. Originally conceived to help truck owners whose truck body had been damaged, but whose engine remained intact, the use of gliders has expanded to become a cottage industry repackaging old, polluting diesel engines in new truck bodies. One EPA study found that these engines produced emissions up to 450 times higher than a comparable 2014 or 2015 model year truck.11

In 2016, EPA put in place a new rule to require that these glider trucks meet the same limits on emissions as all new trucks, a position that the trucking industry fully supported.  However, in 2017, despite broad opposition from the rest of the trucking industry and public health advocates, the new EPA administration proposed to eliminate the requirement that gliders meet current emissions limits, creating a loophole for these dirtier trucks to keep polluting long into the future.12 The Lung Association spoke up to oppose this proposed change at EPA's public hearing and in comments with 11 other health and medical groups.13

Two potential bright spots present opportunities to reduce diesel vehicle emissions. First, in November 2018, then-acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced plans to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from heavy-duty trucks.14 In stark contrast to other EPA actions, the Cleaner Trucks Initiative has the potential to reduce emissions. Time will tell whether this is indeed the case: EPA has yet to make a specific proposal and the implementation would not occur until the middle of the decade.

Legal action presents a second cleanup opportunity. As the world learned from the Volkswagen diesel cheating scandal, even new diesel vehicles must be subject to strict oversight and enforcement to ensure compliance with emissions standards.15 In January 2019, EPA and the Department of Justice announced a civil settlement to address emissions cheating from Fiat Chrysler.16

Threat 4: Cutting funding and expertise needed to clean up the air

The Trump Administration’s proposed budget would greatly reduce the ability of EPA to protect public health.

The Clean Air Act set up smart, open processes for protecting Americans from air pollution, which have enabled the U.S. to reduce some of the most common pollutants by more than 70 percent. Still, these processes only work if EPA has the funding, staffing and scientific advisors it needs to implement and enforce the law. The Trump Administration proposed a budget that would greatly reduce the ability of EPA to protect public health, including slashing overall funding for the agency and reducing grants to support the work of state and local agencies and tribes to implement the requirements of the Clean Air Act and other critical laws. The proposed budget for FY 2020 claims that a priority goal is to “improve air quality” but would cut EPA funding for that work substantially.17

The Lung Association calls on Congress to ensure that EPA has sufficient funding to protect public health with the full range of programs, including state, local and tribal grants. In many cases, key EPA and other public health programs need funding increases to keep pace with their role in protecting the public. Investment in clean air and public health protections is critical.

Threat 5: Stacking the deck to deny the scientific evidence

EPA has taken steps to remove independent science advisors from key advisory committees.

Scientific Reviews. A fundamental reason for the success of the Clean Air Act is the requirement that EPA base decisions and actions on up-to-date science to protect public health. This requires ensuring that independent expert scientists regularly analyze current, peer-reviewed research and then provide their conclusions and perspectives to the EPA staff scientists and the Administrator. Unfortunately, the current EPA has taken steps to remove independent science advisors from key advisory committees, including the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), and replace them with people paid by polluting industries.18 EPA also dismissed a panel of experts that had been providing advice based on their deep understanding of the complex research on particle pollution. Many former participants and independent health and medical groups, including the Lung Association, urged EPA to reinstitute the panel.18

Former chairs and members of CASAC have raised concerns about the lack of scientific expertise in the new members of the CASAC, as well as the dramatically reduced capacity for scientific reviews.19

EPA has also signaled that the agency will restrict what research it will allow its scientists to consider, essentially eliminating from consideration major scientific research that supports strong clean air safeguards.20 Specifically, these proposals would block EPA from using studies that cannot make all the underlying data fully open for public review. Some members of Congress have proposed similar limitations. The arguments cite a need for "transparency," but the reality is that they seek to stack the deck against stronger air pollution standards.

The Trump Administration's proposed budget would greatly reduce the ability of EPA to protect public health.

Many databases that scientists use today do allow unrestricted access to the information, but others do not because of the need for patient confidentiality for subjects included in the research.21The studies are available and transparent, but the private health data they are based on must be protected. Blocking the use of these key studies that have been through multiple independent reviews and show widespread harm from outdoor air pollutants introduces dangerous bias that could limit the evidence, risking weaker air pollution safeguards.

The Lung Association calls on EPA to return to its historic practice of appointing qualified, independent scientists to its scientific review committees and to reject artificial and inappropriate limitations on what peer-reviewed research it accepts.

Benefits Assessment. In addition to undermining the science that shows the need for clean air protections, recent EPA actions also undermine the math – that is, the analysis that identifies and estimates the costs and benefits of these protections.

In late 2018, EPA issued a proposal that would undermine the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), lifesaving protections that are fully implemented, widely supported, and successful in reducing a long list of dangerous emissions. In its proposal, EPA deliberately undercounted the benefits of these protections.

EPA adopted the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in 2011 to limit emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants, including carcinogens, like arsenic, acid gases and other dangerous toxins.  Reducing these emissions from power plants results in the reduction of other harmful emissions at the same time. This is great news, because it means that the standards have not only slashed mercury and air toxics emissions but have also prevented thousands of premature deaths and asthma attacks every year. EPA has proposed not to count the benefits stemming from reductions of particulate matter and other pollutants not explicitly covered by the rule, which artificially tips the balance to make the rule appear less cost-effective than it is. This approach to calculating benefits, by design, obscures the enormous positive health impacts resulting from the MATS rule.

EPA relies on this same approach in its proposed ACE rule for power plants. EPA proposed a method of calculating the costs and benefits of this proposal that ignores key health impacts. The science is clear that there is no level of particulate matter that is safe to breathe. EPA specifically requested comment on whether it would be appropriate to ignore health impacts of particle pollution below a certain threshold, looking for support to once again tip the scales away from the health impacts of their proposal.

Threat 6: Weakening Clean Air Act Implementation

EPA has issued several directives to roll back or undermine steps to implement the Clean Air Act's requirements for reducing major air pollutants, weakening both current pollution cleanup and likely future air pollution standards, including for ozone and particulate matter.

EPA rejected requests by states to recognize and address ozone transported across state lines.22 In addition, in 2018, the agency put forward a very aggressive timeline and process for completing a full review of both the ozone and particulate matter standards before the end of 2020.23 Such a shortened review would severely limit what is supposed to be a thorough assessment of the science. 

EPA also proposed weakening "New Source Review" requirements, which would allow new polluting sources to add to the burden of unhealthy air from industrial sources in communities in several ways.

  • EPA proposed redefining "ambient air" to allow industries to pollute more on their own facilities. EPA seeks to reverse a decades-old policy that narrowed the area that an industry could use to limit public access to its emissions.24
  • As part of the ACE proposal, EPA would allow emissions to be calculated at an hourly rate as opposed to an annual one. The result would be that emissions could increase dramatically, but facilities would not have to install and operate modern pollution controls as long as their hourly rate of emissions did not increase.
  • Finally, EPA also announced an end to its decades-old "Once-In, Always-In" policy, allowing facilities to increase toxic air emissions.25

Threat 7: Weakening the Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act remains a strong public health law put in place by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress nearly 50 years ago. Congress wrote the Clean Air Act to set up science-based, technology-fostering steps to protect public health by reducing pollution. Under the Clean Air Act, Congress directed EPA and each state to take steps to clean up the air to protect public health.  For 20 years, the "State of the Air" report has chronicled the slow but steady improvement in the nation's air quality thanks to the Clean Air Act—a trend that continues even as climate change makes pollution cleanup more difficult.

Congress must make certain that the Clean Air Act remains strong, fully implemented and fully enforced.

Now, that positive trend is threatened, and not just by the impacts of climate change.  Unfortunately, some in Congress seek changes to the Clean Air Act that would dismantle key provisions of the law and threaten the progress made over nearly five decades.

Undermining the Act itself is one of the fundamental goals of polluters and their allies. They have repeatedly challenged Clean Air Act provisions in court, and have repeatedly lost, so now they seek to weaken the law. Recent proposed efforts include exempting certain polluting facilities from some emissions controls, delaying science-based updates to air pollution standards, and undermining public health as the core premise of the Act's key pollution limits.

To protect the lives and health of millions of Americans, the Lung Association calls on Congress to reject attempts to weaken the Clean Air Act and make certain the law remains strong, fully implemented and fully enforced.

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Did You Know?

  1. More than 4 out of 10 people live where the air they breathe earned an F in State of the Air 2019.
  2. More than 141.1 million people live in counties that received an F for either ozone or particle pollution in State of the Air 2019.
  3. More than 20.1 million people live in counties that got an F for all three air pollution measures in State of the Air 2019.
  4. Breathing ozone irritates the lungs, resulting in something like a bad sunburn within the lungs.
  5. Breathing in particle pollution can increase the risk of lung cancer, according to the World Health Organization.
  6. Particle pollution can also cause early death and heart attacks, strokes and emergency room visits for people with asthma, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
  7. Particles are smaller than 1/30th the diameter of a human hair. When you inhale them, they are small enough to get past the body's natural defenses.
  8. Ozone and particle pollution are both linked to increased risk of lower birth weight in newborns.
  9. Do you live near, or work on or near a busy highway? Pollution from the traffic may put you at greater risk of harm.
  10. People who work or exercise outside face increased risk from the effects of air pollution.
  11. Millions of people are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, including infants, older adults and people with lung diseases like asthma.
  12. People of color and those earning lower incomes are often disproportionately affected by air pollution that put them at higher risk for illnesses.
  13. Air pollution is a serious health threat. It can trigger asthma attacks, harm lung development in children, and can even be deadly.
  14. You can protect your family by checking the air quality forecasts in your community and avoiding exercising or working outdoors when the unhealthy air is expected.
  15. Climate change enhances conditions for ozone to form and makes it harder to keep ozone from forming.
  16. Climate change increases the risk of wildfires that spread particle pollution and ozone in the smoke.
  17. This Administration is trying to rollback or create loopholes in core healthy air protections under the Clean Air Act. The Lung Association opposes these actions that will add pollution to the air we breathe.
  18. Cutting air pollution through the Clean Air Act will prevent at least 230,000 deaths and save $2 trillion annually by 2020.
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