The National Ambient Air Quality Standards have been a cornerstone of the Clean Air Act since 1970. The law requires EPA to set standards to reduce ozone, particulate matter and other common air pollutants at levels which are adequate to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety. The standards are designed to ensure that sensitive groups such as children, the elderly, and people with asthma or emphysema -- nearly one third of our population -- do not suffer adverse health effects as a result of breathing unhealthy air.
After these standards are set, states must develop implementation plans to meet them. These plans include specific requirements for industry that take cost into account. They can also consider the needs of small businesses. Areas are given varying times to reach the national standards, depending upon how difficult the task. The Fairfield County area of Connecticut, for example, is given 17 years to come into compliance.
This approach has been very successful. Levels of carbon monoxide, lead, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide have dropped dramatically in the period between 1970 and 1995. As Greg Easterbrook has written: "The Clean Air Act isn't perfect, but it ranks as one of the most successful, cost-effective government initiatives of the modern era."
And both Congress and EPA have been flexible in the implementation of the Act. EPA has recognized that certain deadlines are difficult to meet because of transported air pollution. On two occasions, Congress has extended the time frame for compliance.
Currently, EPA is working with an advisory committee of industry, environmental groups and other interested parties to develop cost- effective strategies for implementing the proposed standards. I'm confident that many very creative ideas will come out of that process and I look forward to its recommendations. That's the history of the Clean Air Act -- the development of new technologies and innovative approaches which greatly reduce the cost of compliance.
Questions are now being raised about whether or not air quality standards should be based solely on health concerns. Mr. Chairman, I want to take some time this morning to explain why I strongly believe that the fundamental structure of the Clean Air Act -- health-based air quality standards with costs coming into consideration in the implementation phase -- is the right one.
In one sense, the answer is simple. People have the right to know whether they are breathing clean air. Today, in areas that don't meet the standards for ozone or particulate matter or carbon monoxide, people know they are breathing air that presents a risk for public health. We can also explain to them why they are not yet breathing clean air: costs of controls can be expensive and some areas need time to reach the goals.
I don't want to change that paradigm. If the standards are not based solely on public health, some places in our country could be meeting the standards and still have unhealthy air. What kind of confidence could the public have about such a system? Not very much.
In other words, Mr. Chairman, it's one thing to tell the public that you won't have clean air for 10, IS or even 17 years because that time frame will allow for implementation of more cost effective solutions. It's quite another to tell the public that they can no longer know whether the air they breathe is clean or dirty because the air quality standard reflects some mixture of cost and health considerations. If an area meets an air quality standard, it should mean that the air is clean and healthy to breathe. Anything less is uninformative at best, deceptive at worst.
In terms of setting health based standards, EPA is inevitably faced with scientific uncertainties. Over the last 25 years, the policy has been to err on the side of caution. We must act without scientific certitude because our goal, wherever possible, is a serious one: to prevent deaths and illnesses. Erring on the side of caution does not, of course, mean acting based on speculation. It means selecting a standard along a continuum of levels that would provide varying degrees of public health protection, and articulating a rationale from a public health perspective for selecting one standard and not a lower or higher standard.
Let me comment briefly on the proposals before us. For both of these proposed standards, EPA relied on a large number of studies conducted by different investigators, in various locations in the U. S. and worldwide, each possessing distinct climates, demographics and lifestyles.
With respect to particulate matter, EPA concludes that forty thousand people are dying prematurely every year from exposure to particulate matter even in areas currently meeting the standard -- which is to say they would have lived longer were it not for particulate air pollution. Such exposure, according to EPA, also leads to tens of thousands of cases of chronic bronchitis, and hundreds of thousands of incidences of aggravation of asthma and other respiratory symptoms.
With respect to ozone, EPA concludes that new standards are necessary particularly to protect approximately thirteen million children and three million asthmatics who are not protected by the current standard from aggravated respiratory problems that can lead to increased hospitalization, illness, days missed from school and work, and other restrictions on activity.
The statements made by Administrator Browner in her proposed rules present compelling reasons to listen carefully to the arguments for setting new standards for ozone and particulate matter. But these are big decisions, and therefore we must be open to comments from a broad a range of people as possible. That's why today's hearing is especially timely and useful.
Mr. Chairman, I come from a state where the air quality is among the worst in the nation -- in significant part as a result of air transported from other regions of the country. I have visited St. Francis Hospital in Hartford where people are sick because of air pollution. And it's not unusual for me to receive a letter similar to the one I received in November from a constituent who lives in Fairfield, Connecticut. She told me that her sister has pulmonary disease and every bit of polluted air is harmful to her health. My constituent has no power on her own to protect her sister from pollution. But she has the power, under the Constitution, to petition us and request that we do what we can to clean up the air and protect public health.
That is a proper role of government. Government exists to protect our security. That means defending against threats from abroad. It means protecting us from criminals here at home. And it also means acting to protect the public from pollution that threatens their health, because fighting pollution is a task no individual can accomplish without the help of strong laws and adequate enforcement of those laws.
We may never have air that is completely free of contamination. And we will never have enough money to do everything we should to clean up the air. The question of cost has to come into play in deciding exactly how, and how fast, to reach the goal of cleaner, healthier air. But we should not let cost compromise that goal, lest we lose sight of who we really represent.