EPA regs spurred public health gains in Atlanta — study

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, April 20, 2018

For the sprawling Atlanta metro area, tighter regulations on power plants and vehicles yielded a long-term payoff in both dramatically improved air quality and fewer emergency room visits, according to a study released today by the Health Effects Institute.

The study, carried out by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, examined the impact of a suite of EPA initiatives driven mainly by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments and primarily aimed at cutting emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

Among initiatives affecting utilities were the Acid Rain Program, the NOx Budget Trading Program and the Clean Air Interstate Rule. Those affecting motor vehicles were the Tier 2 standards that slashed sulfur levels in gasoline and the heavy-duty diesel rule intended to curb truck emissions that lead to the formation of ozone and particulate matter. The study also encompassed the impact of a Georgia program geared in part to reduce gasoline-related emissions of volatile organic compounds.

From 1999 to 2013, emissions and concentrations of various pollutants fell by anywhere from 14 to 91 percent, the study found.

Throughout the five-county Atlanta metro area, the researchers concluded, the improved air quality also “substantially” reduced emergency room visits compared with what they would have been without the regulations. For asthma-related visits, for example, the estimated drop was about 9 percent; for patients suffering from congestive heart failure, the estimated decline was 2 percent.

“These results do not reflect the full impact of pollution-control policies, but rather the impact over the period when these policies were gradually implemented,” the study says.

Overall, regulations targeting power plants had a greater impact than those targeting vehicles “in improving air quality and health,” the study found.

Although EPA forecasts of the impact of major air regulations typically find that the expected health benefits far outweigh compliance costs, looks back at the actual effects on specific areas are much rarer. The report released today is part of an “accountability research” program run by the Health Effects Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit funded by EPA and the global auto industry.

While the authors noted uncertainties in their findings, “this was an extraordinarily careful analysis of just what happened in Atlanta after these many, complex actions were taken,” Dan Greenbaum, the institute’s president, said in a statement.

“And the good news,” he added, “is that all of the effort put in by government and the private sector appears to have paid off in cleaner air and better health.”