A REFRESHING BREEZE IN THE POLITICS OF AIR QUALITY

The biggest issue facing the oil industry is the combination of effects that the use of its products has on human health.

The biggest issue facing the oil industry is the combination of effects that the use of its products has on human health.

That the effects exist is beyond dispute. But their nature and what to do about them remain far from clear.

It is simplistic and harmful to human well-being to propose that burning oil poisons people and therefore should be brought to an end.

Yet environmental politics too frequently proceeds from assumptions that extreme. Hop-scotching alarmism precludes attention from chemical complexities involved in the overall air-quality issue. And emotionalism obscures the undeniable benefits to human well-being of petroleum consumption.

For these reasons, the oil industry should welcome any initiative that approaches health questions about its products rationally, scientifically, and thoroughly.

The National Environmental Respiratory Center (NERC) in Albuquerque, NM, seems headed in that direction. Located with the private, nonprofit Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute-a "basic science, biomedical research organization totally dedicated to respiratory disease research"-the NERC began life in 1998 with congressionally directed funding from the US Environmental Protection Agency. It now receives financial support from private companies.

What should appeal to the oil industry is NERC's integrated, scientific approach to air quality-an approach at odds with politics as usual.

"Environmental air quality research and regulatory strategies have focused largely on single pollutants and sources, but it is unlikely that the health effects observed in individuals or populations are caused solely by single pollutants or sources," NERC says. "Indeed, as levels of most air pollutants are reduced, it is unlikely that the residual effects observed in populations are attributable to a single pollutant species or sources."

The group favors examination of total effects of exposure to mixtures of pollutants from human and nonhuman sources. It also seeks to understand health risks caused by interactions between exposures to environmental pollutants and to airborne material in homes and workplaces.

"Nobody every breathed only one pollutant at a time," explains Dr. Joe Mauderly, NERC director and air pollution scientist. "And it's a good bet that the health effects associated with dirty air can never really be understood by studying one pollutant at a time."

NERC says its emergence reflects frustration by Congress over the scientific uncertainty that came to light when EPA proposed to tighten standards for pollution by ozone and small airborne particles.

The petroleum industry can sympathize with another source of frustration that NERC addresses: piecemeal political attention and consequently disjointed regulation.

"Debates about air pollutants and their sources tend to occur in a one-at-a-time 'revolving door' pattern, so research has also been conducted on one pollutant or source at a time," Mauderly says. "There was no serious effort to get our hands around the real problem."

NERC is a move in the right direction on air quality. Government measures undertaken to solve pollution problems should flow from the best possible understanding of the underlying science. The revolving door pattern described by Mauderly makes examination of pollutant mixtures and interactions impossible. The failure makes very likely that mandated solutions to one problem-especially when adopted in an alarmist political fever-actually aggravate others.

That's no way to regulate. NERC's more integrated approach is more sound. It deserves support from an industry that must do everything possible to maintain a positive balance between the benefits and detriments of its products.

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