Clean Air Act reformers boosted by new report

The increasingly bitter Congressional debates over revisions to the Clean Air Act are likely to get even hotter.

The reason: a recent Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) report reinforcing the environmentalist position that some of the measures backed by the Reagan administration will affect public health adversely.

Until last June the debate had not focused on the health issue, because the proposed revisions do not deal with the law's primary air quality standards designed to protect human health. Rather, they seek to relax the law's ''prevention of significant deterioration,'' or PSD standards, designed to protect areas with pristine air, mostly in the West.

In June, however, the National Audubon Society released a report saying relaxation of PSD standards could result in several thousand more premature deaths yearly in the West. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed the study was flawed and results unsupportable.

The Audubon Society attributed these adverse health effects to increased production of air pollutants containing sulfur. It said recent scientific evidence indicates the Clean Air Act's primary standards for these pollutants were far too lenient; thus, relaxation of PSD standards would lead to more human health problems.

Now comes an interim OTA report which, while not addressing the Clean Air Act revisions directly, deals with the health effects of sulfur oxides, and tends to support environmentalists' arguments. While acknowledging a great amount of uncertainty, the OTA finds that about 2 percent of the yearly deaths in Canada and the US may be due to breathing of sulfur particles. If sulfurous emissions are not reduced by the year 2000, they could cause another 57,000 deaths yearly, OTA says. Reduction of the pollutants by 30 percent, however, would decrease the annual toll by 17,000.

Supporters of the Clean Air Act revisions argue that if this is the case, the primary standards should be lowered, an idea the EPA has under consideration.

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