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United States

Renewables can make the difference, scientific evidence overwhelming

Air pollution kills from 50,000 to 100,000 people yearly in the United States alone -- and renewable energy must be part of an integral solution to the deadly problem. So concludes Curtis Moore, an expert on pollution control technology with the respected American Lung Association, based on a new and compelling interpretation of scientific evidence.

Fine particulates, caused by combustion, as well as ozone, are what make air pollution so dangerous to human health, he says. In fact, such air pollution is second only to tobacco as a cause of lung disease in America. And an astonishing one-third to 35% or even 40% of these deadly pollutants are caused by fuel combustion in conventional power plants, he says. Much of the remainder is from car exhaust and factories.

The use of fossil fuels should be cut and the use of renewables such as wind, solar and photovoltaics must be increased, says Moore. "Clean renewable energy technologies can help resolve our air quality problems, but so far they have received inadequate attention from policy makers," says Moore, a former government counsel, expert on air pollution and now director of international programmes for the American Lung Association "The reasons for pursuing renewable energy are grounded firmly in the value of human life," says Moore, co-author of the book "Green Gold: Germany, Japan and the US and the Race for Environmental Technology."

Dying needlessly

Moore, formerly the counsel to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, says that although the country's air is getting cleaner, even legal levels of air pollution may be killing or sickening millions of people needlessly. He bases his view on data that he says suggest air pollution, and especially the particulates -- or soot and smoke -- that largely come from burning fossil fuels, kill more people in the US than traffic accidents, Aids or heart disease. For its part, tobacco is thought to cause 450,000 premature deaths annually in the US.

"Most scientific evidence now suggests that damage [to health] is done by particulates from combustion." And opposition to renewable energy has mostly been political and economic, he says. His view is contained in his recent brief, "Dying needlessly: Sickness and Death Due to Energy-Related Air Pollution" published by the Renewable Energy Policy Project at the University of Maryland.

He says scientific research has actually linked air pollution -- what he calls industrial as opposed to cigarette "smoking" -- and serious health problems for decades. The research he cites on particulates, or small particles, is more recent than the research on ozone. Almost 20 years ago, a study linked ozone to up to 50,000 deaths in the US annually. In 1981, another study -- mandated by the US Congress -- about America's "rust belt," or the Ohio River Basin region of heavy industry, suggested that 11,000 deaths might be caused yearly in that area alone by air pollution. That study, however, was "deep sixed" because it came out shortly after the conservative Ronald Reagan became president.

Then in the mid 1980s, Harvard researchers under contract with the Department of Energy also found that 50,000-100,000 deaths might be caused annually by air pollution in the United States. And several years ago researchers using new and more powerful statistical techniques came to the same conclusion about the number of deaths from dirty air. The issue has only drawn attention in the last two or so years, he says, because the Clinton administration is interested.

Crucial timing

Moore's deadly warning about renewable energy's importance comes at a crucial time. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is about to issue a final decision on its controversial proposal to tighten air pollution standards on both ozone and particulates, especially fine particulates, which come from burning fossil fuels in conventional power plants, cars and factories. Larger particulates might be from construction or soil. The decision was expected by July 17-19.

The EPA, under administrator Carol Browner, estimates that its new standards on smog and soot would prevent 15,000 premature deaths -- especially of children and the elderly -- and would eliminate 250,000 annual cases of serious respiratory problems in children. The agency maintains that extra expenses for some industries caused by the change would be more than offset by savings in health costs. It also says the link between deaths and air pollution is backed by 60 peer-reviewed scientific studies.

It would also be the first time in a whole generation that America's ambient air standards have been significantly changed. They were adopted in the late 1960s, although in 1978 the ozone standard was changed. Environmental and public health groups in general back the proposal, issued last November, but say it is not detailed enough. In an unusual criticism of another country's domestic policies, the Canadian government says the changes would not go far enough.

Not unsurprisingly, opposition to the proposal as too stringent comes from major industrial groups which say the tightening up of air standards would be too costly, too restrictive and are not necessary or even proven scientifically. Most adamantly opposed are oil or conventional power businesses. Indeed an approximately $10 million effort is under way to derail the change, via the "Air Quality Standards Coalition" which, says Moore, has an estimated 75 lobbyists. "Clearly the oil industry sees this as a threat to combustion," he says.

At this point, the question of whether the new standards are adopted has become political not scientific, says Moore. The issue has been bumped up to the White House level, and he says it seems likely that either Vice President Al Gore or President Clinton will become involved. And he says if it is Gore who is involved -- with the likelihood that the final decision will be quite close to the EPA proposal -- it will cost him the presidential nomination in three years' time, so fierce is opposition from vested interests.

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