The Clean Air Act has failed to curb pollution, despite the popular notion that it is responsible for America's progress against air pollution, according to a new Brookings Institution study.

But neither has the act damaged the economy as industries claim, the Brookings scholars said. Businesses complaining about environmental regulation are wrong, and are just using environmental policy "as a whipping boy for other social ills," the study said.

Most of the progess against air pollution in the past two decades should not be attributed to the Clean Air Act, but can be accounted for by the switch for economic reasons from burning coal to burning oil and gas, which pollute the air less.

"The myth of success [of the Clean Air Act] comes from the dramatic gains of the 1950s and 1960s, partially sustained through the 'good luck' of a limping economy and continuing substitution of oil and natural gas for coal," said Lester Lave and Gilbert Omenn, authors of the report.

But in the 1980s, "as the economy expands and national economic policy forces a return to coal, air pollution could get markedly worse, leading to the collapse of the present system" of pollution control.

Calling for a complete overhaul of the Clean Air Act to avoid such a collapse, the authors said that the law has successfully controlled emissions from new cars and new factories, but failed to deal with the larger problem of old cars and existing factories.

What progress has been made has been inordinately expensive because the law relies on cumbersome or completely unworkable bureaucratic procedures to carry out pollution control.

"Awkward and unworkable provisions in the act, repeated postponements of deadlines, and special treatment of certain industries have compromised the objective" of pollution control, the scholars said.

They maintained that in the past decade neither the average concentration nor the national output of most pollutants has declined.

The report recommends regulating existing polluters as well as new ones, changing the law to account for a balance of risk and benefit in some regulations, and improving lax and ineffective systems for monitoring pollution and inspecting polluting factories.

The report strongly recommended the "bubble" proposal now offered by the Environmental Protection Agency. The bubble approach avoids trying to monitor and clean up pollution smokestack by smokestack. Instead it imagines a bubble of air over a factory, and says regulation should govern the average quality in the bubble and leave the methods of compliance to industry.

The Brookings report also said "troubled industries, such as steel and autos, had laid inordinate blame on environmental policy. In fact, environmental policy is little more than an irritant in the larger social context of an economy that has been plagued by inflation and slow growth.