Blue Skies, High Anxiety
By Joel Schwartz
From the May/June 2007 Issue
Filed under: Public Square, Health & Medicine, Science & Technology
Our air is cleaner than it’s been in a century, writes Joel Schwartz. So why do Americans worry it’s so dirty and dangerous?
Americans are driving more miles, using more energy, and producing more goods and services than ever. But at the same time, the air quality in America’s cities is better than it has been in more than a century—despite the fact that the U.S. population has almost quadrupled and real GDP has risen by a factor of nearly thirty.
But Americans aren’t aware of this good news—or don’t believe it. Polls show the public thinks that air pollution has been steady or even rising over the last few decades, that it will worsen in the future, and that it is still a serious threat to people’s health. They are convinced that pollution is a serious problem throughout the country, that it is a major cause of asthma and other respiratory diseases, and that it shortens the lives of tens of thousands of people.
Much of what Americans think they know about air pollution is false. Through exaggeration and sometimes even outright fabrication, the main purveyors of the story—journalists, government regulators, environmentalists, and even health scientists—have created public fear out of all proportion to the actual risks.