Of the many reasons to be terrified for American public health in the era of climate change, one breath of relief has been the long-term increase in air quality in the United States. Since the founding of the EPA under the Nixon administration, total emissions of six of the most common air pollutants have dropped 73 percent, while cuts to air-particulate pollution enforced by the Clean Air Act have added 18 months to the average American’s life expectancy since 1970.
In the Trump era, it’s probably healthier to hold that breath of relief. Despite a 25 percent decline in fine-particulate pollution over the seven years prior to Trump’s election, that form of pollution grew by 5.5 percent from 2016 to 2018, according to an analysis of EPA data by researchers at Carnegie Mellon. As the New York Times notes, fine-particulate pollution, defined as particles with a diameter of about one-thirtieth of a human hair, “has been linked to a range of health problems including asthma and respiratory inflammation, lung cancer, heart attack and stroke. A recent study found a significant link between air pollution and the risk of miscarriage.” The 5 percent uptick was also associated with almost 10,000 premature deaths in the two-year period — in addition to the 50,000 to 120,000 Americans that the EPA estimates die prematurely every year due to air pollution.
The natural inclination is to blame the deregulate-everything Trump administration for this very real effect of air pollution — an urge that is at least partially correct. The researchers note that a decrease in the enforcement of the Clean Air Act, which sets standards for power plants and vehicles, is a likely contributor to the fine-particulate pollution. But so are factors like the increase in natural-gas extraction and use — set in place by the Obama administration — increases in auto emissions from Americans’ increased driving habits, and in the West, smoke from wildfires. During the 2018 fire season, air pollution in parts of California exceeded world health standards for air quality by at least 60 times: Fine-particulate matter was clocked at 1,500 micrograms per cubic meter last year during the Camp Fire, far past the World Health Organization’s acceptable level of 25 micrograms.
Though the Trump administration isn’t immediately responsible for increased commute lengths and extended forest-fire seasons, it’s certainly creating the conditions for air pollution and other climate-related factors affecting public health to get worse in the near future — whether that’s the 85 environmental rules rolled back by the administration; the decision to sue California to attempt to limit its carbon emissions; proposing massive cuts to public transit; knee-capping long-term efforts to stave off climate disaster; or pushing for higher levels of methane pollution than even the energy industry is comfortable with.
Despite all this, Trump has touted clean air and water as a touchstone of his administration’s success, boasting of “crystal clean water and the cleanest and the purest air on the planet.” Though that isn’t correct, it sounds good to the swath of Republican voters generally agnostic on climate change but concerned with access to unpolluted water and air. And don’t expect the new EPA data to change the line. On June 18, the AP reported on EPA data showing that the United States had 15 percent more days with unhealthy air than the two years prior. That same day, President Trump officially kicked off his reelection campaign and told the crowd in Orlando: “We have among the cleanest and sharpest crystal clean air and water anywhere on earth.”