Why we need to give air pollution the sustained attention it deserves

It’s a killer of millions, and it’s worst where the most vulnerable people live. But air pollution can be cut drastically when we demand regulation and enforcement.

It’s hard to imagine places more different from one another than Delhi, India; Mexico City, Mexico; and Gary, Indiana. Yet years after I visited those cities, they’re indelibly linked in my memory for one reason: the foul, polluted air smothering their landscapes. The pollution was so heavy you could see it wafting through the interiors of modern buildings (Delhi, 2016), feel it stinging your eyes (Mexico City, 1972), and smell it through closed car windows (Gary, the 1960s).

Despite its ubiquity, or perhaps because of it, air pollution has rarely gotten the sustained attention it deserves. That’s an outrage, given that air pollution is a global killer, causing an astonishing seven million premature deaths every year. But it’s also an opportunity, because this is an environmental problem that we can fix. 

There’s no better example of that than the experience of the United States, which last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act. Signed by President Richard Nixon on December 31, 1970, this single statute resulted in a 77 percent decrease in the nation’s air pollution. It lengthened millions of American lives, saved trillions of dollars, and according to the American Lung Association’s Paul Billings, became “the most powerful public health law enacted in the 20th century.” 

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