NEW YORK — Take a breath. You do it as many as 20,000 times a day. And with each one, you take in not only the air, but also the dust and particles and chemicals suspended in it.
Just how much of that extra particulate and chemical matter is safe is at the heart of a fierce national debate. It pits White House environmentalists against the administration's budget mavens, the business community against health organizations, and the Northeast against the Midwest.
Within a week, the White House is expected to decide whether to implement tough new clean-air standards. If President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore side with the "greensneakers" on their team, the result could be the most sweeping environmental change of the decade. Dozens of communities would be knocked out of compliance with the Clean Air Act, but advocates say the health of hundreds of thousands of people will be protected.
The catalyst for the debate was the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Last fall, it recommended tightening air-quality standards by a third for ozone, also known as smog. It also proposed regulating tiny airborne particles, or soot, that are 1/28th of a human hair in width - 75 times smaller than the particulate matter currently regulated under the Clean Air Act.
"Current standards leave far too many Americans at risk, particularly children," EPA administrator Carol Browner said last fall in defending the proposed standards.
Officials from the manufacturing and utilities industries immediately cried foul, calling the scientific basis for the changes "thin," at best. They also railed against implementation costs, saying the price tag could be as high as $150 billion - annually.
"There needs to be more time to thoroughly research to prove that the problems the EPA claims are being caused by ozone and particulate matter are indeed caused by them, and not other sources," says Theresa Larson, director of environmental quality for the National Association of Manufacturers. "If they're not, then a lot of time and money will be spent for naught."
But at the EPA, Ms. Browner calls the scientific evidence "clear and convincing." The agency spent more than three years studying 270 peer-reviewed articles and concluded the proposed standards would result in 250,000 fewer cases of serious respiratory problems in children and prevent 15,000 premature deaths.
The EPA is legally bound to make its judgments solely on the basis of the most current science. But it also ran some numbers and decided implementation costs are closer to $20 billion, total.
"Anytime you hear someone saying it's going to cost $150 billion to do this, that doesn't even pass the laugh test. And I'm not so sure I'd put a lot of robustness in the $20 million number either," says Henry Lee of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "We don't have any idea of what it's going to cost."
That's because of the process. Once EPA sets the standard, each state devises regulations to meet it. States' plans aren't due until 2000 for particulate matter and 2002 for ozone. Communities would face the compliance deadline several years after that.
But the EPA and many environmentalists say there's an easy way to meet the proposed standards: simply clean up older electric generating stations that were "grandfathered" in under the original Clean Air Act.
More than 55 percent of the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal-fired plants, and 80 percent of those plants have at least one boiler that does not have to meet current air standards, because of grandfathering, says the Environmental Information Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington. "These outdated plants generate more than 70 percent of our total nitrogen oxide emissions," says EIC's Will Callaway. Those emissions can form soot and smog when mixed with other pollutants.
But many industry officials say there's too much uncertainty in the standards implementation process. First, the states decide how to meet the EPA's standards, and they could ignore the coal-fired plants and zero in on other emissions producers. Second, technology is still being developed to reduce the tiny particulate matter the EPA wants to regulate.
"Nobody knows what technology will be available to reduce these emissions, and no one understands the issue of transport, which is, 'where are these emissions coming from and where are they going'?" says Joel Bucher at Citizens for a Sound Economy, a pro-business lobbying group in Washington. "For that reason, controlling the emissions is going to be very, very expensive."
But at the heart of industry's objections is one concern: the science used to develop and support the proposed standards. Bucher admits there's evidence to show the current air standards may not adequately protect human health, but he notes only a handful of studies directly link health problems to the tiny particles of soot the EPA now wants to regulate.
A mother's concerns
But Maureen Damitz doesn't care which particles are to blame. She knows that whenever there's a heavy smog day in Chicago, her sons can't play outside. All three boys have been diagnosed with asthma. His mother says Kyle, who's still in elementary school, simply can't breathe on bad smog days.
"All those people need to do is watch a kid with asthma trying to play outside on a bad-air day, and they wouldn't need any more science after that," says Ms. Damitz.