by Max Schulz



Manhattan Institute/Zogby Survey of Adults Question Frequencies

Manhattan Institute/Zogby Survey of Adults Question X-tabs





Given our country’s reliance on fossil fuels for power production and the increase in vehicle use, it is perhaps not surprising that many people believe that air quality in the United States has declined in recent years. Of those surveyed, almost half (47.6 percent) indicated that U.S. air quality has gotten worse since 1970. Only 27.5 percent responded that air quality in the U.S. has improved significantly since then.

In spite of the twentieth century's steep population rise, massive industrialization, and the nationwide proliferation of the modern automobile, the air we breathe is cleaner than it has been in decades.

Statistics reveal, however, that the latter are correct. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency also confirm that U.S. air quality has improved since 1970. The six commonly found, or “criteria” air pollutants—PM2.5 particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and lead—have decreased by more than 50 percent; air toxins from large industrial sources, such as chemical plants, petroleum refineries, and paper mills have been reduced by nearly 70 percent; new cars are more than 90 percent cleaner in terms of their emissions; and production of most ozone-depleting chemicals has ceased. Meanwhile, gross domestic product has tripled, energy consumption has increased 50 percent, and motor vehicle use has increased by almost 200 percent.[82] However, if carbon-dioxide emissions are counted as pollution,[83] then overall pollution numbers certainly look quite different, as our country’s carbon emissions rose throughout the twentieth century.

According to air-quality expert Joel Schwartz, average levels of air pollution fell between 20 percent and 96 percent between 1980 and 2005, depending on the pollutant.[84]

Schwartz notes that Americans are driving, producing, and using more energy than ever before, yet “air quality in America’s cities is better than it has been in more than a century—despite the fact that the U.S. population has almost quadrupled and real GDP has risen by a factor of nearly thirty.”[85]

Author and journalist Gregg Easterbrook states that aggregate air emissions have fallen 25 percent since 1970, while the population increased 39 percent during the same period.[86] More recently, the combined emissions of the six criteria pollutants dropped 41 percent from 1990 to 2007, all “while the U.S. economy continued to grow, Americans drove more miles, and population and energy use increased.”[87]

In his book The Progress Paradox, Easterbrook writes that smog has declined by one-third since 1970, though the number of motor vehicles has nearly doubled and vehicle-miles traveled have increased by 143 percent. Easterbrook also documents that acid rain—precipitation with elevated acidity levels that results from such activities as coal combustion and is thought to contaminate plants and fresh water—has declined by two-thirds, though the U.S. burns almost twice as much coal each year; and airborne lead, a poison, is down 97 percent.[88]

How has the U.S. seen such growth, both in terms of population and economically, while also reducing air pollution? Many credit the federal Clean Air Act (CAA), adopted in 1970 to curb pollution, while others point out that air quality was improving prior to the passage of the CAA. For example, Schwartz writes: “Nationwide monitoring data demonstrate that particulate levels declined nearly 20 percent between 1960 and 1970, while sulfur dioxide declined more than 30 percent.”[89] In spite of the twentieth century’s steep population rise, massive industrialization, and the nationwide proliferation of the modern automobile, the air we breathe is cleaner than it has been in decades.

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