Telling The Public When The Air Is Unsafe To Breathe: Follow The American Tradition Or China’s Approach?

EnvironmentBlog, via Flickr

By Leon G. Billings

On May 17, a Committee of the United States House of Representatives voted to repeal the very premise, the heart of the Clean Air Act.  By a party line vote of 28-18 the Committee rejected an amendment to strike this outrageous provision and decided to replace science with politics in determining whether the air is clean or dirty. By replacing the requirement that scientific analysis be the premise for defining the levels of air pollution that cause adverse health effects with a requirement that polluters, politicians and economists set “clean air” levels based on cost, these House Committee Republicans would repeal the fundamental premise of the Clean Air Act: that every American has a right to breathe healthy air.

On Thursday, June 21, the House of Representatives will vote on the legislation which has been rolled into large package of bills that block clean air protection and promote big oil’s agenda.

In 1963 Congress agreed, unanimously, that the Public Health Service ought to research the available health science to determine how clean the air we breathe needed to be to protect public health.  The Clean Air Act is credited with preventing 160,000 premature deaths 54,000 cases of chronic bronchitis and 1.7 million asthma attacks, all while saving the U.S. economy more than $1.3 trillion in 2010 alone.

These “air quality standards” are simply the level of air pollution above which people’s lungs are threatened and health endangered.  To date only in China has a government decided that people are not entitled to know when their health is endangered by dirty air.  Earlier this month, China demanded that the U.S. Embassy stop releasing air quality information. Fortunately, the United States has rebuffed China’s demand. The House Leadership bill, if enacted, would mean that the people of the United States will not be told of the risks of air pollution just like China’s approach.

Is China’s air pollution policy the model for Speaker John Boehner, Leader Eric Cantor, Whip Kevin McCarthy, Chairman Fred Upton and his fellow Republican Committee Members?

The GOP controlled House of Representatives is on the verge of deciding that the American people ought not to know if air pollution is threatening their health.  Energy company polluters have tried for four decades to repeal the requirement that sound science be the basis for clean air regulation.  They went so far as to challenge this sound science in the Courts only to be rejected in a unanimous decision of the US Supreme Court written by Justice Antonin Scalia.

The vast majority of Americans want healthy air.  According to bipartisan surveys for the American Lung Association strong majorities (greater than 2 to 1) want EPA not Congress to set air pollution standards.

Every family who has a kid who has asthma or other lung problem wants healthy air.  Virtually every cardiologist and pulmonologist would agree that dirty air is bad for heart patients and people with lung ailments.  But 28 Republican members of a House Committee and their elected leadership think the polluters’ economic interests should guide US policy air pollution information.

We can disagree on taxes and deficits — but suffocating our citizens because polluter lobbyists don’t want to pay to clean the air so everyone can breathe freely sounds more like China’s approach not America.

— Leon G. Billings was staff director of the Senate Environmental Pollution Subcommittee, and had primary staff responsibility for writing the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. He was chief of staff to Edmund Muskie when Muskie was Senator and Secretary of State. He served as Executive Director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 1982 cycle and served 12 years in the Maryland legislature.

7 Responses to Telling The Public When The Air Is Unsafe To Breathe: Follow The American Tradition Or China’s Approach?

  1. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    How long before the Chinese embassy starts publishing US air quality data?

  2. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Chinese, quite correctly, object to the US Embassy being used as a base for subversion and the promulgation of black propaganda against China, inside China. The habitual arrogance of the USA in bullying, intimidating, dictating to and interfering in the internal affairs of all other countries on the planet, while plainly having no moral standing to do so, is one reason for the USA’s well-deserved disfavour around the planet.

  3. ToddInNorway says:

    China is the model for society that the 1% ruling plutocrat elites really want. Think about it-endless hordes of low-cost labor with no rights, working to physical exhaustion, 1-2 weeks holiday a year, living in cubicles at the company dormitory. No protests against massive pollution from industry placed next to densely populated neighborhoods of the poor. Limited health services for the poor, so they die young and do not burden the pension and health system by getting old. And yes, all power to a ruling unelected elite that makes all decisions behind closed doors, not much unlike corporate governance in the USA today.

  4. colinc says:

    Global fascism is on the march, draped in stars and stripes, wielding a crucifix like Thor manhandles his hammer.

  5. Spike says:

    A new UK report states acid rain has improved but background ozone has risen and “ozone reduced UK wheat production by 1·2 million tonnes in 2000, representing 7% of production”

    “Policies to control ground level ozone have been useful in reducing peak ozone concentrations, with significant benefits for air quality, but a steady growth in background ozone as a consequence of ozone precursor emissions throughout the northern hemisphere have eroded these benefits and as a result ground level ozone remains a threat. Ozone will only be mitigated effectively through hemispheric scale controls, which are now an urgent priority.”

    Metal pollution has puzzled the scientists

    “The amount of metals deposited in the UK from the atmosphere greatly exceeds the amount of metals reported to be emitted from anthropogenic sources by up to a factor of 10, thus we are unsure where all this metal originates”

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Your portrait of life in China is, if you’ll forgive me, paranoid phantasy. In fact Chinese wages have been growing by 10% or so annually for years. A new universal health insurance system is being established. The reduction in poverty in China over recent years was equal to 110% of the global fall in poverty, as countries like India went backwards. Chinese educational standards are near the very top worldwide. Chinese are traveling abroad in growing numbers.
    Of course China still has massive problems, inequality and pollution the worst in my opinion. But you can see efforts being made to address these, and Chinese public opinion is heard by the ruling elites. We will see how China evolves, but I find the paranoid denunciations of Westerners not just hypocritical, seeing as it is Western actions that have caused the global ecological crisis and Western powers who are opposing all environmental action out of pure self-interest, but deeply unhelpful. The drive of the West to dominate the globe, even great powers and millennial civilizations like China, can only be destructive of efforts for humanity to pull together to save ourselves.

  7. Joe Romm says:

    This analysis seems wrong. There is ZERO evidence that the Chinese political leadership is particularly concerned about the environment or the health of their citizens. They have made a decision to utterly ignore climate science in their self-destructive quest to build coal plants at a rate that will finish off what the West began — destroying a livable climate. If you look at their mercantilism and what they are doing around the globe in foreign-policy, I see no evidence that they have any interest in humanity pulling together to save ourselves. They look out for #1, like the vast majority of great powers. Ironically, though, the destruction of livable climate will hit them as hard if not harder than most other countries.