Commentary: Clearing the Air on Saving Americans’ Lives

By R. Harold Brown

Did you know that America’s cleaner air has saved more than 2.5 million lives over 20 years? It was news to me, but it must be true: It’s reported on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site.

In fact, despite this impressive statistic being around since 1997, I dare say it’s news to most citizens. Neither the EPA nor others that I’m aware of are trumpeting this victory.

It’s more likely that Georgians have heard the dire warnings of danger from the “spewing” of toxins from smokestacks and engine exhausts, and the projected number of deaths unless said “spewing” stops. Just one example is the Clean Air Task Force’s report in 2000 that claimed, “Nationwide, power-plant pollution is cutting short the lives of 30,100 Americans each year.”

The implication is that if Americans would just eliminate electric power plant pollution – a daunting task – 30,100 lives could be saved each year. But here’s the awesome news from the traditionally pessimistic EPA: 130,000 lives were saved, on average, every year from 1970 to 1990, for a total of 2.6 million.

The EPA, an agency with the best data but a poor record of claiming success, cites the salvation of so many Americans in a publication entitled “The Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act, 1970 to 1990.” It was published as a report to Congress in 1997 (, EPA 410-R-97-002).

The agency didn’t actually declare the number of lives saved as 2.6 million, but they could (and should) have. For some reason, the EPA estimated the number of “deaths avoided”– in other words, lives saved – each year for 1975, 1980, 1985 and 1990 (see table below). Reaching the total saved over 20 years from EPA’s numbers was a matter of calculating the “deaths avoided” for the years between, assuming that they changed steadily from one estimate to the next. I then summed the deaths avoided for the 20-year period.

The EPA calculated lives saved using levels of particles smaller than 10 micrometers (PM-10) as an indicator of the “criteria pollutants,” particles, ozone, nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon monoxide. Deaths avoided due to the other “criteria pollutant,” lead, were calculated separately and added to those deaths due to other pollutants. Only 7 percent of the lives saved were attributed to decreased lead.

Numerous estimates have been offered of deaths due to air pollution; most have great uncertainty. Clearly, the federal agency’s evaluation of lives saved in the past ought to have much more credibility than others’ predictions of deaths from current or future air pollution, because we know full well how much pollution has decreased in the past. More importantly, the logical deduction from the EPA estimate is that even if we accept the Clean Air Task Force’s projection of 30,100 deaths per year caused by power plant air pollution, and even if we could eliminate all that pollution, it would take 86 years to save as many lives as have already been saved from 1970 to 1990. And if we use the 1990 rate for lives saved since then (the rate likely has increased, because the air has become cleaner), it would take 166 years to equal the 5 million lives saved from 1970 to 2003.

Knowledge of the environment is important. The EPA listed as one of its goals in 2000 the “Expansion of Americans’ Right to Know About Their Environment.” The purpose of the goal was “to empower the American public with information, enabling them to make informed decisions regarding environmental issues in their communities.” Environmental problems and failures are not the only events people need to hear about. Better publicity about the nation’s successes would give the public more confidence in the EPA’s ability to solve environmental problems.

Those who deserve recognition for our cleaner air are myriad: We can thank the EPA, state environmental agencies, environmentalists and legislators. Thank the automotive engineers who have reduced car emissions by 90 percent since 1970. Don’t forget the power companies: Georgia Power’s parent, Southern Company, increased power generation by 30 percent from 1990 to 2002, but the tons of sulfur dioxide and NOx emitted decreased 39 percent and 31 percent respectively. Closer to home during that same period, Georgia Power’s plants increased generation 21 percent while SO2 emissions dropped 42 percent and NOx dropped 38 percent.

And next time you hear the loud grousing about our “polluted” air, consider that it may simply be rising angst about the shrinking “cause célèbre” of air pollution and the growing realization that millions of lives have been saved.

EPA estimates of deaths avoided each year due to reduction of air pollution

Year of estimate             1975              1980                1985                  1990

Deaths avoided             58,764             145,884           169,642           183,539

University of Georgia Professor Emeritus R. Harold Brown is an Adjunct Scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (January 16, 2004). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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