Lost in the Smoke (and Mirrors)

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Hotline, Spring 2002

by Suzanne Seppi, GASP Executive Director

The need for a well-thought out energy plan and strong pollution reductions becomes ever more evident as new investigations link health and environmental damages to air pollution. Power plants are the largest source of industrial pollution, and a disproportionately large amount of pollution comes from the older coal-burning power plants. These plants have continued belching long after it was assumed they would be retired. Power plant emissions most often associated with health and environmental problems are particulates, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and mercury. Consider two recent studies:

Fine particulates: An investigation of fine particulates (particles smaller than 2.5 microns) was just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.1 The study analyzed data from 500,000 adults who were followed from 1982 to 1998 as part of an ongoing cancer study. This data was then linked to air pollution levels for cities nationwide using advanced statistical modeling.

Over many years, the danger of breathing soot-filled air in polluted cities is comparable to the health risks associated with long-term exposure to second-hand smoke, according to the authors of the study. The researchers calculated that the number of deaths from lung cancer increases by 8% for every 10 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter (ug/m3).

Are power plants involved in fine particulate emissions? In a recent article about fine particulates in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, it was reported that, “Studies have found that one-third to one-half of the fine particles in southwestern Pennsylvania’s air are ammonium sulfates — so called “secondary particles” — that are formed when sulfur dioxide gas emitted by power plants combines over time and distance with ammonia and water in the atmosphere.”2

In Allegheny County, we are not meeting the upcoming fine particulate standard at most of our monitors. The Liberty Boro monitor has the highest readings and South Fayette Twp. the lowest in recent data.

Ozone: Precursors to acid rain and ozone include nitrogen oxides. Power plants contribute about one third of nitrogen oxide air pollution in the United States. Ozone has long been associated with increased asthma attacks, but new research is beginning to associate high ozone levels with the development of asthma.

In early February of this year, it was reported by an investigative team at the University of Southern California that children who played three or more outdoor sports in high-ozone environments were more than three times as likely to develop asthma compared with children who did not play outdoor sports. There was no increased risk where ozone concentrations were low. This was among the results of the study which included 2500 children from schools in 12 communities in southern California.

Researcher Dr. Rob McConnell of the investigation team said: “Our study provides evidence that, contrary to conventional wisdom, ozone is involved in the development of new onset asthma in children who exercise heavily (and thereby increase the amount of ozone which gets into the lungs). It is by no means conclusive proof that air pollution causes asthma, but it may be a piece of the complicated asthma puzzle.”

Add to this that power plants also emit about one third of the country’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the leading cause of global warming, also are major emitters of mercury, a pollutant causing fish consumption advisories in 41 states, and even Washington should recognize that power plant emission reductions are essential.

There are two proposals breaking through the haze of debate. One has been put forth by the President, titled the “Clear Skies Initiative”; the other is the Clean Power Act in the Senate (S.556). On the next page is a table comparing the two and the current Clean Air Act “Business As Usual.” You be the judge.


  • The President’s proposal does not put a cap on CO2 emissions but relies on a voluntary program. Both the Clean Power Act and the Clean Smokestacks Act would set a mandatory cap on power plant emissions at 1990 levels.
  • The President’s proposal would allow trading of the three pollutants, including mercury emissions, similar to the trading program under the Acid Rain Program of 1990. Some utilities could actually increase emissions of mercury. The Clean Power Act and the Clean Smokestacks Act would not allow mercury trading, though trading of the other pollutants would be permitted.
  • The President’s proposal would replace key reduction strategies in the Clean Air Act. The Clean Power Act would not replace any programs in the Clean Air Act. That we must reduce power plant emissions seems obvious. You can always have your say by contacting your senators and representatives with your opinion. GASP recently visited Senator Specter’s Pittsburgh office with a stack of letters from citizens expressing their feelings on this issues. For more information, you can read the President’s proposal at the EPA web site http://www.epa.gov and you can read S.556 at http://thomas.loc.gov.

    Contact Senator Specter:
    Phone: 412-644-3400
    Fax: 202-228-1229
    E-mail: http://www.senate.gov/~specter/webform.htm

    Contact Senator Santorum:
    Phone: 412-562-0533
    Fax: 412-562-4313
    E-mail: http://www.senate.gov/~santorum/emailrjs.html

    1. Lung Cancer, Cardiopulmonary Mortality, and Long-term Exposure to Fine Particulate Air Pollution. C. Arden Pope III; Richard T. Burnett; Michael J. Thun; Eugenia E. Calle; Daniel Krewski; Kazuhiko Ito; George D. Thurston, JAMA. 2002; 287: 1132-1141

    2. Don Hopey. Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 3/07/02, Reducing Particulate Pollution Won’t Be Easy.

    3. Clear The Air: www.cleartheair.org.