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Every Breath You Take
Air pollution kills tens of thousands of Americans each year. It doesn't have to be that way.
by Monika Bauerlein

Sidebar: When Health Pros Fight Back
Sidebar: Stopping the Coal Rush

Montessori teacher Leila Cepeda and her students share a neighborhood with some of Chicago's top polluters.
ON A COOL, CLEAR DAY IN CHICAGO, the Fisk Generating Station is a red, white, and blue still life--its squat, cinnabar-brick facilities resplendent against a blue sky, the slender smokestack crowned by a fluffy cloud of bright white. This coal-fired power plant began operating in the 1950s, and though its owners have made some improvements--such as switching to low-sulfur coal--it has none of the major safeguards the nation's premier antipollution law, the Clean Air Act, mandated in 1970.

Each year in that white plume, the Fisk plant pumps out about 4,300 tons of sulfur dioxide and more than 2,300 tons of nitrogen oxides, both of which contribute to acid rain and can burn the inside of people's lungs. It also releases more than 117 tons of health-damaging particulate matter and more than 26 tons of volatile organic compounds (the kinds of gases you smell when you fill up your vehicle's tank).

Fisk is one of six aging coal-fired power plants around Chicago that since 1999 have racked up more than 7,600 opacity violations--meaning there are too many fine-dust particles in the smoke emitting from the stacks. Yet none of the plants, according to an investigation by the Illinois attorney general, has received a single citation for these violations. Not only have they skirted the requirements of the Clean Air Act for decades, but more recently they have also gotten a break thanks to Bush administration rules that make it easier for older, dirtier facilities to continue operating.

As a result, Chicagoans are exposed to levels of air pollution that were supposed to have been outlawed more than three and a half decades ago--levels that are now known to be life-threatening. In 2000, a team of researchers from Harvard University estimated that Fisk and the five other coal-fired plants, plus three more elsewhere in Illinois, together cause 300 deaths and 14,000 asthma attacks each year. If the plants were forced to abide by the Clean Air Act's pollution standards, the researchers found, two-thirds of those deaths and asthma attacks could be avoided.

MOMENTUM FOR THE PASSAGE of the Clean Air Act was driven by tragedy. "People still remembered Donora, Pennsylvania," notes Jonathan Samet, chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. (Donora was the small town where three days of concentrated air pollution in 1948 sent 7,000 people to the hospital and left 20 dead.) "So the mandate of the act was very strong, not just to clean up the air but to keep going back to the science to see if more needed to be done." As time passes, Samet says, "that mandate becomes harder to maintain."

Indeed, if the vision of 1970 was for a continual tightening of standards based on new science, the Bush administration's impulse has been the opposite. Since George W. Bush was sworn in, the administration has delayed a plan to reduce emissions of mercury, a powerful neurotoxin; all but stopped filing lawsuits to enforce clean-air rules; and refused to tighten controls on ozone and dust pollution that affects more than 150 million Americans.

Administration officials have argued that they are simply waiting for better evidence. "The science ... is extremely complex, and there's a lot of it out there," acting EPA air chief William Wehrum said in February to explain why the agency had proposed a new, looser-than-expected standard for fine-dust pollution. "We know there's a diversity of opinion."

According to the vast majority of government and other scientists, however, the past few years have brought overwhelming evidence that pollution at currently permitted levels is sickening and killing thousands of people and that many of those deaths could be avoided with comparatively minor adjustments to present standards. For example, 30,000 people die each year from power-plant pollution alone, according to a study by a firm that trains EPA staffers--almost twice as many as are killed by drunk drivers and 50 percent more than are murdered. As in Chicago, the study found that simply enforcing existing air-quality laws would save two-thirds of those lives.

It's not just those with weakened lungs or chronic asthma who are dying. Air pollution is linked to a range of ailments never before thought of as environmentally related--conditions such as diabetes, attention deficit disorder, even Parkinson's and heart disease. (A Harvard University study found that 100,000 heart-disease deaths each year are believed to be caused by contaminants in the air.)

Beyond the personal tragedies, pollution also takes a heavy toll on the economy. For example, an estimated 300,000 babies are born each year with dangerous levels of the toxic metal mercury, which is linked to learning disabilities and lowered IQs. The resulting loss of adult productivity, according to a recent study by researchers from the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School, costs the nation $8.7 billion annually. Another study by some of the same researchers calculated the total healthcare cost of pollution's effects on children at $55 billion per year, more than the Bush administration's current budget request for the Iraq war. Yet despite our growing knowledge about the carnage pollution causes, there is scant political will to do anything about it.

THE FISK POWER PLANT is one of several industrial facilities located in the neighborhood of Pilsen, southwest of downtown Chicago. Made up of small wood-sided and brick houses, Pilsen was built a century ago by immigrants--Germans, Bohemians, and Poles--and is populated today by a new group of immigrants, mostly Latinos. The neighborhood has above-average numbers of children, below-average incomes, and more than its share of what Midwesterners call stick-to-itiveness--a quality evident in everything from the restaurant signs (The Steak 'n Egger--"We doze but never close") to the faces of people like Leila Cepeda.

Cepeda, a curly-haired, olive-skinned second-generation Chicagoan and near-lifelong Pilsen resident, meets me on the light-filled ground floor of her house a few blocks from Fisk. The house once belonged to the guy who drove the beer cart for the local brewery, she explains, and the first floor was where he kept the horses. She and her husband replaced the barn doors with a glass-brick wall, filled the space with dwarf-size furniture, and--voilà--transformed it into a Montessori children's house that draws kids from across the Chicago area. Today three preschoolers are busy making stars from Popsicle sticks and taking turns on the teeter-totter. One is Cepeda's niece, four-year-old Tirsa. When she finds out why I'm here, she asks, "The smoke from the plant, can you make it stop?"

About six years ago, Cepeda was on her way back from the park with a gaggle of children when a cloud crept up the street. "It was a dense fog, and it felt like it was burning your lungs," she recalls. "Since the kids are so small, I couldn't just detour, so I said, 'Hurry!' They went as fast as they could, and they were all coughing." She called the EPA but got no help. Later she found out about a local group called Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization. From it she learned that she lived near some of Chicago's top polluters and that contacting the EPA might not do much good. EPA officials did not return Sierra's phone calls, but the agency has publicly said that it doesn't consider Fisk's opacity violations serious or in need of enforcement action.

Still, as she talked to friends and family, Cepeda realized that almost every household in the neighborhood seemed to have someone with respiratory problems and other mysterious ailments. There was her sister, Patricia, who was always sickly as a child; Patricia's husband, who, upon moving to Pilsen from the Dominican Republic, developed chronic sinus problems; and Cepeda's son, Elías, who struggled with allergies for much of his childhood. She started thinking about moving, something that neither family ties (most of her relatives now live in the suburbs) nor gang violence (of which Pilsen has its share) had been able to get her to consider. "The pollution is scarier than the gangbangers," Cepeda says, almost puzzled at her own words. "Isn't that something?"

There are no studies of Pilsen residents' health problems, but doctors in the neighborhood say they see startlingly high rates of airway infections, diabetes, and depression. One physician, Abdul Bhurgri, says respiratory ailments are far and away the most common complaint among his clinic's 6,000 patients each year. Bhurgri sometimes advises parents whose kids' asthma can't be controlled to move out of the neighborhood. "Asthma is not just triggered by one pollutant or the other; it's the combination," he says. Driving down the expressway, approaching Pilsen, "you see the smokestacks with white smoke, clouds of smoke. It causes sickness, especially respiratory problems."

Neither Cepeda nor Bhurgri nor anyone else in Pilsen can prove that such health problems are tied to a specific chemical release by a local polluter. That type of link is impossible to establish in a world where the air we breathe holds residues from every smokestack and tailpipe for miles around. What is well proven, though, is that the more pollution in the air, the sicker people get.

Take particulates, the tiny bits of solid or liquid matter that exude, to the tune of some 4 million tons every year, from power plants, factories, cars, and trucks. When companies violate opacity rules, they are emitting too many particulates. Once inside the human body, these particles work in a range of insidious ways: Larger ones lodge in the lungs, causing respiratory problems and even cancer. The smallest ones penetrate into the bloodstream, making particulate pollution a major culprit in cardiovascular disease.

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