AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today is Earth Day, a tradition begun in 1970 as the environmental movement was gaining momentum. Climate change wasn't yet on the agenda, but pollution was capturing the public's attention. The air quality in American cities from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh to New York City was found to be terrible. And amid all of that, an obscure Senate subcommittee began holding hearings about what to do about it. Those hearings eventually led to the Clean Air Act, signed into law by Richard Nixon on December 31, 1970.
Environmental journalist Beth Gardiner recalls this history in a new book. It's called "Choked: Life And Breath In The Age Of Air Pollution." Welcome to the program.
BETH GARDINER: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So your book looked at air pollution in a number of countries, but we want to talk about a chapter that discusses the development of the Clean Air Act here in America. And you call this a landmark moment for public health. How come?
GARDINER: Well, the Clean Air Act of 1970 was really a revolutionary piece of legislation for its time. And I think in retrospect, it really stands as one of the most consequential laws in modern American history. A couple of congressionally commissioned studies since 1970 have found - literally - that the regulations enacted under the Clean Air Act have saved millions of American lives since that time and trillions of dollars.
So that's an extraordinary impact. It's one that's sometimes invisible to us. We obviously don't know if we haven't had a heart attack, haven't had an asthma attack, haven't lost a loved one because the air was cleaner than it otherwise would have been. But nonetheless, the science demonstrating that that's true is very solid.
CORNISH: You also call this the start of a new era in America's modern history - in what way?
GARDINER: Well, the Clean Air Act really changed, in many ways, the conception of government's role and gave to the federal government both the power and the responsibility to protect Americans' health. One of the most revolutionary pieces of this very innovatively designed law was a provision which elevated public health as a priority above all others in the setting of air quality standards for the entire country. It put public health over and above corporate profit and cost in determining what amounts of pollution would be allowed in Americans' air.
CORNISH: But that hasn't stopped it from being challenged, right? How has it weathered those challenges?
GARDINER: Well, it's been up and down over the years. And I think what we're seeing right now is a really sort of unprecedented assault on the Clean Air Act and the enforcement of the Clean Air Act by the Trump administration. Obviously, I think, we've all become familiar over the last few years with the idea of climate change denial. But I think what we're now seeing in the Trump years is actually air pollution denial.
So the science around air pollution is very strong. And what it tells us is that as levels of pollution in the air go up, levels have all sorts of health problems go up, whether it's heart attacks and strokes or dementia and premature births. And the link between air pollution and ill health is very powerful when it comes to justifying regulation. So if you want to begin to roll back those regulations, a pretty effective way to do it is to try to cast out on the science.
CORNISH: Can we talk about criticism of the law itself, though? I mean, one is that it's applied too broadly, right? And that as air quality has improved, the goalposts have moved. And one of the conservative regulatory experts you spoke to said, look, this is an example of federal government overreach. Do those critics have a point?
GARDINER: Yeah, I mean, that certainly has been the view on the right and in the Republican Party and from many quarters over, you know, this isn't fair and you keep moving the goalposts. One of the problems has been that it's built into the Clean Air Act that it is updated every five years in accordance with the science.
And what the science has found in its progress over the decades has been disturbing from a health perspective. And it's also been sort of onerous from a regulatory perspective because those findings are that levels of pollution that years ago were thought to be safe actually are still killing people. America's air is much cleaner now than it was back in 1970, but a hundred thousand Americans still die every year from the effects of air pollution. That's a lot of people.
CORNISH: As you travel the world reporting on air pollution in other countries, did you gain an appreciation for what the U.S. was able to accomplish with the Clean Air Act?
GARDINER: Yeah. I think as I traveled around the world, I could see actually in clearer and clearer focus that America's progress since 1970 is a real success story. I went to China, and officials there are trying to sort of replicate the achievements that we've had here in the United States. And it's, you know, I guess sort of ironic to see the United States undermining its own Clean Air Act enforcement capability as other countries begin to try to replicate it.
CORNISH: Beth Gardiner is author of the book "Choked: Life And Breath In The Age Of Air Pollution." Thank you for speaking with us.
GARDINER: It's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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