Skip to main content

When air becomes a public health hazard

By Dan Farber
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
 A <a href='http://www.latimes.com/science/la-top-10-most-polluted-cities-20140430-html,0,3083737.htmlstory#axzz30OAKFu88' target='_blank'>2014 report</a> ranks cities that have the worst air quality. San Francisco, California, is among them. A 2014 report ranks cities that have the worst air quality. San Francisco, California, is among them.
HIDE CAPTION
The most polluted cities in the U.S.
The most polluted cities in the U.S.
The most polluted cities in the U.S.
The most polluted cities in the U.S.
The most polluted cities in the U.S.
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new report lists the cities that have the worst air quality in the U.S.
  • Dan Farber: Part of the problem stems from policy failures in Washington
  • He says we need to implement mass transit more on a national level
  • Farber: Air pollution from cars and trucks pose a real public health hazard

Editor's note: Dan Farber is the Sho Sato professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also the co-director of the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- A new report from the American Lung Association lists the cities that have the worst air pollution in the U.S.

Places in Southern California and the Central Valley, including Los Angeles, Fresno, Visalia and Modesto, top the list. But Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and even Fairbanks are also offenders.

Part of the problem stems from policy failures in Washington. Of course, local governments are at fault as well.

In California, cars and trucks contribute heavily to the problem, as is also true in cities like Dallas. LA pioneered urban sprawl and the car culture and is now paying the price. But it's not alone: Atlanta, Charlotte, and others are also sprawled across the countryside.

American cities have not done enough to get people out of cars and onto mass transit. LA exemplifies the problems. As detailed in "Railtown," a recent book by Ethan Elkind, LA focused too much on subways and not enough on trolleys and dedicated bus lanes. To make matters worse, the routes were often in the wrong places due to political interference from the city council through the state capital to Congress.

It's not realistic to expect that something as major as transportation infrastructure will be immune from politics, but rational planning needs to play a bigger role than it has in the past. LA's specific problems were its own, but mass transit is in need of more support and better implementation across the nation. All too often, support for mass transit is portrayed as a wasteful subsidy because its benefits to the public are misunderstood.

The federal government has sometimes failed to do enough to fight air pollution. Under the Bush administration, especially, industry succeeded in using federal laws as a shield against state regulation. For instance, cities have been blocked from addressing pollution from older, dirtier trucks.

When one port authority tried to prohibit dirtier trucks from using its facilities, the Supreme Court held this effort violated a federal law deregulating prices and routes in the trucking industry. It was probably a surprise to Congress that the effort to allow markets to control this industry gave the industry special immunity from the kinds of pollution regulations that apply to every other industry. Obviously, other cities also have their own high-polluting trucks, and they are similarly stymied.

Lawsuits have also prevented cities from modernizing fleet vehicles such as cabs. When one West Coast air quality district tried to make fleet vehicles such as cab companies buy only the cleaner vehicles on the market. Although this would have been a significant step toward improving air quality in a heavily polluted area, the Supreme Court ruled that the air district was violating federal law. This ruling has had ripple effects elsewhere in the country, like New York City, where federal courts have blocked efforts to upgrade its cab fleet.

Some say electric cars are the future. But when electric cars were first introduced, the Bush administration took the very unusual step of getting involved and siding with industry. It wasn't until Bush left office that California was able to make a bigger push for electric cars. The delayed introduction of electric vehicles is bad for the U.S.

State regulators, even with the best intentions, can't go it alone. They need local governments to help combat sprawl and support mass transit.

The Environmental Protection Agency has an obvious role to play in addressing pollution, and it needs to be more effective. New federal regulations on pollution from electric power plants are a long-overdue step in the right direction. Hopefully, EPA will also tighten ozone standards during its next review. But at the same time that the federal government is trying to do more, it is ironic to see federal law used to block state pollution controls.

Air pollution these days is a deceptive problem. People know that some days are hazy and leave their eyes irritated. What they don't realize is that these problems are only the tip of the iceberg. Air pollution results in more respiratory illness, more trips to the ER, and more deaths. According to EPA estimates, its program to reduce cross-state pollution (which the Supreme Court upheld recently) will save 14,000-34,000 lives per year. We've made real progress should not become complacent over this major public health issue. We need to redouble our efforts.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT