Speeches - By Date
Society of Environmental Journalists05/17/1997
| Carol M. Browner|
Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Remarks Prepared for Delivery
Society of Environmental Journalists
May 17, 1997
Thank you for inviting me here today. I know that the EPA's proposed standards for smog and soot have been a major story in this region and throughout the country. And I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the discussion at this conference.
Over the past quarter century, America has made great progress in protecting the public health and the air, the water and the land that we all share.
We have made these strides because together, as a nation, we have insisted that the public health be protected -- and because businesses, communities and public agencies have worked to meet the health standards we have set.
Working together, we have reduced pollution of the public's air -- with common sense, cost-effective solutions -- cleaner cars, cleaner fuels, and cleaner industries.
But the job is not done. We still face tremendous environmental and public health challenges. And one of them is ensuring that the air in every community is healthy to breathe.
As you know, EPA has proposed to strengthen standards for smog and soot and to expand the public health protections -- and thereby reduce the levels of those pollutants in the nation's air.
If adopted as proposed, the new ozone (or smog) standard would protect nearly 50 million more Americans from the adverse health effects of smog -- 13 million of whom are children. And the new standard for particulate matter (or soot) would result in approximately 15,000 fewer premature deaths, a quarter-million fewer cases of aggravated asthma, another quarter-million fewer cases of acute respiratory problems in children and 60,000 fewer cases of bronchitis -- each year.
You also know, I'm sure, that not everyone is happy with these proposed standards.
Indeed, some in industry have vigorously objected to our proposal and have waged an expensive public campaign against them. Some have argued that the implementation costs to businesses would be excessive, while others have accused us of "moving the goal posts" in the middle of the game.
Still others have warned about impending lifestyle changes -- that these standards would lead to the banning of barbecue grills and Fourth of July fireworks.
Let me tell you they are nothing more than scare tactics. They are false. They are wrong. They are manipulative. And, sadly, they detract from what could be and should be a rational, informed debate on an issue of great importance to millions of Americans.
And that brings up some interesting questions: Where matters of public health are concerned, how much weight should be given to vested interests? How much say should industry have in the setting of air quality standards?
Fortunately, the Clean Air Act provides some answers.
Born under President Nixon, amended and strengthened under Presidents Carter and Bush, the Clean Air Act is the embodiment of an ongoing, bipartisan desire to protect all Americans from the harmful effects of breathing polluted air.
From the beginning, the Act has contemplated the march of technology and science. It has recognized that science will always come up with better ways to understand the health effects of the air we breathe -- and that the standards of the 1970s may not be right for the 21st Century. And it anticipated that some in industry -- some with vested interests in the status quo, some that may not want to reduce their pollution of the public's air -- might not agree with the conclusions of the scientific and public health communities.
Therefore, Congress set forth a process to ensure that the standards would be set and, if necessary, revised in a manner that puts the public health first and ensures that Americans are protected with an adequate margin of safety.
First, the Clean Air Act directs EPA to review the public health standards for the six major air pollutants at least every five years, in order to ensure that they reflect the best current science. It also lays out a specific procedure to obtain that science and, if needed, revise the standards. This is to ensure that we never get to the point where the government tells Americans that their air is healthy to breathe, when, in fact, it is not.
Next, the process requires that EPA's standard-setting work and the underlying health studies -- some 250 of them in this case -- be independently reviewed by a panel of scientists and technical experts from academia, research institutes, public health organizations and industry. The ozone and particulate matter scientific panels, over a four-year period, conducted 11 meetings, all open to the public -- a total of 124 hours of public discussion of the scientific data, research and the studies of the health effects of smog and soot.
EPA has held further public meetings, at which hundreds of representatives from industry, state and local governments, organizations -- as well as members of the public -- have offered their views. In fact, a few weeks ago we closed the most extensive scientific review and public outreach process ever conducted by EPA for developing a public health standard.
We are now completing the task of analyzing and considering the submitted comments and, after doing so, we will set final public health standards. Congress then has its say and may vote up-or-down on them -- if it chooses.
When looking at these air standards, I hope Congress will review all of the scientific analysis. I hope they will study the entire body of evidence.
EPA did look at the evidence -- all of it published, peer-reviewed and fully debated health studies -- literally peer review of peer review of peer review. The independent scientific panel looked at it, too.
We have studies linking smog to nearly one in three hospital admissions on days when ozone levels were at or below the current U.S. standard. We have studies linking it with lung damage equal to more than half that of a pack-a-day smoker. We have inhalation-chamber studies showing breathing problems in young adults simulating routine outdoor construction work at ozone levels equal to the current standard. We have a summer camp study that found consistent loss of lung function in children at levels below the current standard.
For particulate matter, we have a study based on personal health diaries collected by the American Cancer Society that tracked 300,000 Americans in 50 cities and found that the risk of early death is 15 to 17 percent higher in areas where levels of fine particulates are highest. Another study, published in 1993 in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that exposure to fine particulates in the air increases the risk of early death by 26 percent and, in the most polluted cities, shortens individual lives by an average of one to two years. Still another showed that air with higher soot levels was directly associated with higher numbers of elderly people going to the hospital for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.
And these studies represent only a small part of the overwhelming body of independently-reviewed evidence which tells us that the current standards for smog and for soot are not sufficient to protect the public's health with an adequate margin of safety. Serious health effects are occurring in children, the elderly and other sensitive populations at particulate matter and ozone concentrations at and below existing standards. That is why we have recommended strengthening those standards.
Here are some other facts:
Lung disease is the third leading cause of death in this country -- killing an estimated 335,000 Americans each year.
Asthma is the most common chronic illness in children. Nearly five million kids have it, along with nearly 10 million adults. Asthma is now the leading cause of hospital admissions for children. And deaths from asthma attacks among children and young people more than doubled between 1980 and 1993.
In 1993 alone, asthma killed 342 Americans under age 25 and sent nearly 200,000 for a stay in the hospital.
No less than the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that pediatricians make parents aware of the daily variations in ozone and -- when ozone levels are high -- keep their kids indoors.
Let me turn for a moment to the potential costs of EPA's proposed standards.
We do consider costs. We take our responsibility to do that very seriously. But the law does not, and should not, allow us to consider costs at this critical public health stage of the process. The Clean Air Act clearly requires levels of smog and soot to be based solely on health, risk, exposure and damage to the environment, as determined by the best available science -- and not projected costs for reducing pollution.
This is no accident. In the 1970 Clean Air Act debate, Congress deliberated the issue of cost -- as well as the technical feasibility of meeting clean air standards. At the time, there was a great deal of frustration that putting cost considerations first was preventing any real progress toward cleaner air.
Thus, the decision was made -- the public health must come first. The current best science must prevail in determining the level of protection the public will be guaranteed. Nothing else can take precedence.
This issue has been revisited each time the Clean Air Act has been amended -- in 1977 and again in 1990. And, each time, Congress and the President have come down firmly on the side of the public health first and foremost. That has been the history for the past quarter-century.
Not only does the law forbid us from considering the costs in setting these standards, but history and real experience tell us we'd be foolish to try.
Almost every time we have begun the process to set or revise air standards, the costs of doing so have been grossly overstated -- by both industry and EPA. Dire predictions of economic chaos -- always a part of the clean air debate -- have never come to pass.
Why? Because industry always ultimately rises to the challenge -- again and again -- finding cheaper, more innovative ways of meeting standards -- and lowering their pollution.
In cities across the country -- and right here in this region -- we have reduced air pollution without sacrificing economic progress.
In fact, since 1970, emissions of the six major air pollutants have dropped by 29 percent while the population has grown by 28 percent and the gross domestic product has nearly doubled.
That's partly because once the standards are set, the Clean Air Act provides a great deal of flexibility in how they are implemented -- reasonably, rationally and in the most common sense, cost-effective way, over a lengthy phase-in period.
If these standards are adopted, EPA would work with all who are affected -- state governments, local governments, community leaders, businesses large and small -- here in this region and across the nation -- to find cost-effective and common sense strategies for reducing pollution and providing the public health protections. That is part of the process, too.
Some state and local public officials have expressed concerns about setting stronger air pollution standards at a time when they are only beginning to come into compliance with the present ones.
But consider this -- the switch to cleaner fuels and cleaner industries is happening as we speak. There are a number of air pollution prevention initiatives already under way -- and others coming on line soon -- that will continue to result in cleaner air, whether or not we adopt tighter standards.
Meeting any new standards is not going to require major, radical alterations in the American way of life.
Rather, the biggest reductions in air pollution will come from the largest polluters. For example, further pollution controls on emissions from major power plants would go a long way toward meeting tighter standards for smog and soot.
So if the air is getting cleaner anyway, why do we need stronger standards?
Three reasons, essentially.
First, to take us that much closer to fulfilling the original promise of the Clean Air Act that Americans shall breathe clean, healthy air -- as determined by the latest and best scientific information. That goal has never changed. Nor should it.
Second, to ensure that government tells the American people the truth about the quality of the air they are breathing and how it affects their health.
And third, to save lives and reduce suffering.
So, as the debate over air standards rages on, I would ask that you ask yourselves the following question: "Have we reached the point where we should abandon our commitment to a public health standard for air pollution?"
I believe the answer is no. Americans want clean air. They want the public health to come first. They want their children protected. They want EPA to do its job -- which is ensuring that the air they breathe is safe and healthy. They want government to be honest about when the air is unhealthy. And they have every right to expect that industry will rise to the occasion, meet the challenges, and once again reduce their pollution of the public's air.
Clearly, this is a vital issue of tremendous importance to millions of American families. And I think that, in this debate, we all have a responsibility to stick to the facts. No more scare tactics. The public health is too important to be decided on trumped up, exaggerated charges put forth by some in industry who might be required to take steps to reduce air pollution.
Let us listen to science. Let us respond as we have before. Let us work together toward common ground -- not only on this particular issue, but on all environmental and public health issues -- to improve the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land on which we all live.
Let us do it for our children.
Thank you, and I am happy to answer your questions.