Our Insights

Every Breath You Take

May 24, 2019

By Jennifer Sharp Seinfeld
Air Quality Department Manager and Senior Project Manager

This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.

Poverty, illnesses, violence─everything is getting worse, right? Or is it?

In his book Factfulness, author Hans Rosling provides data showing that around the globe people’s lives are getting better.

Worldwide, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost been cut in half during the past 20 years, and life expectancy has more than doubled in the past 200 hundred years. In the United States, the violent crime rate has been falling since 1990.

Is there also a success story regarding environmental improvements, air quality in particular?

Since the federal Clean Air Act (CAA) was adopted almost 50 years ago, the U.S. economy has grown tremendously. The gross domestic product, one of the primary indicators of economic health, has increased more than 250%. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also reports the following air quality improvements:

These improvements have resulted in fewer premature deaths and pollution-related illnesses. Other benefits include less damage to trees, crops and materials, and reduced ecosystem damage from acid rain. Over broad regions, including many national parks, the air is clearer.

But at what cost? Numerous economic studies have shown that overall the public health benefits of the CAA have been greater than the costs of achieving them. While new environmental regulations can have negative impacts on employment in different sectors, those negative effects are minor or passing when compared to other factors, such as overall economic growth, business cycles and changes in technology.

Despite the improvements made by the U.S. and other countries, air quality challenges remain. High air pollutant concentrations still pose a pressing health issue in many parts of the world. According to the World Health Organization, people living in many urban areas are exposed to high levels of air pollution. Most of these cities are in the Middle East and Asia.

In the U.S., relatively high levels of air pollution traveling from other states or countries, as well as natural sources of pollutants, affect the ability of several cities to reach current clean air standards.

Called an unprecedented global environmental challenge, climate change has strong links to greenhouse gas (GHG) levels in the atmosphere. The programs that achieved massive reductions in pollutants under the 1970 CAA were not intended to directly affect the continued growth in carbon dioxide, a GHG created primarily from fossil fuel combustion.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that GHGs are regulated pollutants under the CAA. Since then, EPA issued regulations for emissions from mobile sources and power plants.

However, current domestic policies and regulations alone will not be nearly enough to affect worldwide levels of GHGs. Comprehensive scientific analyses and international cooperation are both critical to understand the linkages between climate change and GHG emissions. We can hope that the lessons learned over the past 50 years by government and industry will provide a strong foundation to develop effective mitigation programs.

The work of studying and improving air quality on a global scale is not finished by any means. It is encouraging to acknowledge the significant improvements in air quality that the U.S. has made, positively impacting millions of lives. You are a beneficiary of this success—with every breath you take.

About the Author:

Jennifer is a degreed engineer and former state air quality regulator with decades of expertise in the environmental industry. She has extensive Clean Air Act experience, particularly with air permitting programs. Her primary area of expertise is the New Source Review (NSR) Program, including both Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) and Non-attainment NSR permits. Jennifer has experience in all technical and managerial phases of complex permitting projects, including performing applicability determinations, calculating emissions, developing permitting strategies, assessing control technologies, and negotiating permit conditions.

Jennifer assists clients in the power generation, cement, petroleum refining, pharmaceutical, chemical and food processing industries. She also has recent experience with the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA), managing a comprehensive Environmental Assessment (EA) to fulfill requirements of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Loan Guarantee Program. She has also contributed to Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) under NEPA. Jennifer has established good working relationships with numerous regulators at the state and federal levels. She has spoken on current air quality issues for numerous technical conferences and to corporate meetings of environmental managers. Jennifer also has managed and conducted numerous air quality audits.