Losing ground on the environment

Cheap oil, lax regulation and economic growth at all costs are not worth it in the long run.

Researchers at the University of Southern California published a study last week detailing the heavy toll dirty air takes on the still-developing lungs of children. The findings suggest that the smog settled over the nation’s largest cities will leave many urban kids with significantly diminished lung capacity throughout adulthood.

Those results are a sober reminder that an economy built around free-flowing oil, big cars and lax environmental enforcement is compromising public health. The upcoming election is a welcome opportunity to tilt the country toward conservation policies and the development of alternative energy sources.

The links between air pollution and respiratory ailments such as asthma have long been established. Now researchers have determined that children in heavily polluted areas are at risk of entering adulthood with lung capacities at less than 80 percent. That leaves them highly susceptible to colds, flu, pneumonia and even heart disease later in life.

The study blames nitrogen dioxides and fine particulate matter from coal-burning power plants and gas-guzzling cars for retarding lung development. Nitrogen dioxides also help to form ground-level ozone, today’s biggest source of smog.

Cleaning up this mess should be a no-brainer. Air pollution limits are among the most cost-effective regulations policymakers can find, with small investments made today reaping a windfall of savings tomorrow.

That’s not likely to happen when serious environmental concerns are treated like political irritations to be finessed with empty promises. The “Clear Skies” initiative unveiled by President George W. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address actually loosens limits on nitrogen dioxides, sulfur dioxide and other dangerous toxins. The administration has also gutted regulations aimed at forcing the dirtiest power plants to install new pollution-control technology. Those moves leave no doubts about the Bush administration’s priorities: cheaper oil, fewer regulations and economic growth at all costs.

The price tag for the Bush brand of environmentalism will be around for some time to come. As the latest research indicates, you can see the true cost up close on playgrounds across the country.