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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Pushing Back Against the Push-Back

By Lin Kaatz Chary, PhD MPH 

This essay is in response to: What is the most important achievement we've gained through air pollution management? What remains to be done to safeguard public health from air pollution?

Living in Northwest Indiana, in the midst of a highly industrialized area, one of my favorite stories was told by Jean Sheppard, a humorist who came from Hammond, IN. Born in 1921, he grew up near a factory that produced insecticides. As he would tell it, the air in his neighborhood was always thick with smoke, and the sky was always a sickly yellow. (The upside, he said, was that there were never any bugs around.) Every morning his father would get out of bed, step out onto the front porch, dressed in his long johns, stretch his arms and inhale deeply. He would look up at the yellow sky and say, "Yup, life is good!" If the skies were yellow, and the air smelled of chemicals, that meant the stacks were smoking, and that meant that people were working. And that was good.

In Northwest Indiana, as in many industrial parts of the country, the trade-off between a good job and good health, though largely unspoken, was well understood by everyone. That sacrifice bought homes, sent children to college, and often bought a little tract of land somewhere for after retirement. If the area was universally thought of as one of the nation's dirtiest, the common perception was that the only alternative was not an option anyone wanted to see.

By the time I hired into U.S. Steel Gary Works in May of 1977, first as a laborer in the rail mill and later in the coke plant, the Clean Air Act (CAA) had been in effect since 1963, and had had major revisions as recently as 1970. While an occasional cloud inversion or change in the wind direction still brought the unmistakable smell of creosote and other chemicals, in general the skies over Northwest Indiana had cleared tremendously. The old-timers in the mill used to talk about how different it had been in the old days, before the CAA; sometimes you couldn't see your hand in front of your face, they'd say.

The workers in the mill could see first hand that the Clean Air Act had been a resounding success just by the changes in air quality they observed around them. And, it was also pretty clear that no jobs had been lost in implementing the law, contrary to the dire predictions of the companies in the course of passing the legislation. In fact, jobs had been created.

There was no question that its implementation improved the quality of life for millions of people. And the changes, of course, went far beyond just how clearly we could see the sky. As reported recently by the US EPA, "in 2010 alone, the reductions in fine particle and ozone pollution from the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments prevented more than: 160,000 cases of early death; 130,000 heart attacks; 1.7 million asthma attacks; and 13 million lost work days."[1] And an analysis of the EPA data by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has shown that by the year 2020, the 1990 amendments to the CAA will have "saved 4.2 million lives and avoided millions of cases of pollution-related illness by 2020--including 43.8 million cases of asthma exacerbation, 3.3 million heart attacks, 2.1 million hospital admissions and 2.2 million emergency room visits, and 313 million lost work days."[2] In this context, the greatest achievements of the regulations governing air pollution management encompass both the human health and economic benefits overall, not to mention quality of life.

We should take note that the most important word in the sentence above is "regulations." None of these achievements leaped full-blown on their own initiative from the foreheads of our industrial Zeuses. They are the product of over 40 years of on-going struggle to get regulations promulgated against virtually unilateral opposition from the regulated community. Voluntary action, for all its touted attractions, would never have produced the results the laws have mandated. And, of course, today the air quality challenges we face are the ones we can't see, but which permeate our air all the same.

What we can see clearly is how the push-back against the very laws that have produced such dramatic results has now escalated to a fever pitch, with efforts to not only block new regulations to control greenhouse gases, mercury, and other airborne toxics, but to roll back the clock on the progress achieved so far.

The challenges that remain are significant. Job blackmail and threats of plant closures are as potent as ever, particularly in these days of economic hardships for workers. Many of the toxic substances in the air have been there so long, and are so integrated into our industrial fabric, that they are now routinely considered as "background levels," and we have come to accept them as necessary evils. The implications and consequences of eliminating them seem unimaginable. And these are just the outdoor pollutants. We have now recognized a whole new frontier of indoor air quality problems: second- and third-hand smoke, household cleaning and deodorizing products, pesticides, and fire retardants, to name just a few. How do these interact with outdoor pollutants? We really don't know.

So, first and foremost we must continue to understand the health impacts of the huge the number of chemicals that have never been tested and whose exposure implications remain unknown. At the same time we must figure out ways to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the hundreds of air toxics for which no standards exist, and must fight our way out of the defensive position into which we have now been put by those politicians who want not only to block new regulation, but are trying to gut existing rules. We must go on the offensive, and once again apply the classic public health approach of primary prevention–and the precautionary principle–to how chemicals are used and emitted into the air.

We have to remind ourselves of what we already know–that the air we breathe is part of the commons, and it is our imperative to protect it. That no one should ever have to choose between a job and a healthy environment. Our goal should be the day when we can all step out onto our front porches, and, taking in a deep breath, know that everything really is all right with the world.


[1] Perks, Rob, "EPA: Clean Air Act saves millions of live and trillions of dollars," March 1, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rob-perks/epa-clean-air-act-saves-m_b_829924.html.

[2] Ibid

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