Anyone who listened to the urgency of the Environmental Protection Agency's announcement late last year that it will toughen standards for particulate emissions from American industry might think airborne particulates (mostly dust) were a serious and growing health hazard. Not so. Not only do particulates constitute a low risk to Americans' health compared with such routine risks as driving across town or stepping out of the bathtub, but also they are a shrinking health hazard.
Airborne particulate concentrations were only about two-fifths as high in 1994 as they were in 1976. Indeed, they had fallen by nearly 11 percent just since 1990. And improving industrial emissions-control technology promises the continuation of that trend.
This trend is representative of American air pollution trends in general. They are sharply downward. In the 19 years from 1976 through 1994, carbon monoxide concentrations fell 55 percent; ozone 27 percent; sulfur dioxide 53 percent; particulates 58 percent; nitrogen dioxide 29 percent; and lead, the most dangerous air pollutant, 97 percent, according to the EPA's own figures.
In fact, the worst years in American history for air pollution were the late 1960s and early 1970s. Since then, emission and concentration trends for all significant air pollutants have been downward. (The same is true of water pollutants.) Indeed, since 1988 none of the measures has violated the standard set by the EPA for protection of public health. (See graph.)
Such trends shouldn't surprise anyone who believes the economist's rule of thumb: "You get what you pay for." From 1973 to 1993, annual expenditures for air pollution abatement rose by 45 percent, from $18.2 billion to $26.6 billion, and for water pollution abatement by 65 percent, from $19.7 billion to $32.6 billion, in constant 1987 dollars.
But this doesn't necessarily mean that spending more money to reduce emissions even further makes good sense. Risks to health and life from air and water pollution in the United States are already extremely low, and risks might well be reduced much more by every new dollar spent for other purposes-say, highway safety and reductions in alcohol, tobacco, and drug use-than if that same dollar were spent for further pollution abatement.
For the last two decades, the EPA has acted as if every tougher regulation were self-evidently good. But an independent review that it sponsored concluded that the EPA lacked sound scientific and economic methods and standards for determining whether the benefit from new regulations it wants to impose will match or exceed the costs. Considerations like those above, coupled with that finding, should lead Congress to insist that any further tightening of EPA pollution control regulations must pass tough tests for cost/benefit analysis.