Clean Air Act (1970)
and
The United States Environmental Protection Agency

K. Restivo

Introduction

As air pollution began to rise in the mid 1950's due to industrialization in the United States, something needed to be done to reduce the health and environmental impacts. In 1955, the Air Pollution Control Act was introduced in the United States of America. It included legislation involving air pollution and provided funds that allowed for federal research. In 1963, the United States of America passed legislation to control air pollution through the Clean Air Act (US EPA, 2017a). Ultimately the federal program was created to help monitor and control air pollution.

History

Before the Clean Air Act was introduced in 1955, there were no national legislations or regulations regarding air quality and emission levels in the United States. The worst air pollution event in U.S. history, in the 1940’s, sparked the start of a cleaner air era and better regulations.

In late October, 1948, the citizens of Donora, Pennsylvania woke up to a thick blanket of yellow smog that covered their town as seen in Figure 1. This toxic mixture of carbon monoxide, fluorine gas, sulfur dioxide, and metal dust burned the throats, eyes, and noses of the citizens living there (Murray, 2009). The Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel and Wire Factory, located in Donora, were to blame for the smog that covered the city. The smog killed 20 people and sickened more than 7000 citizens during the 5-day ordeal (Williams, 2013). A rare temperature inversion allowed the toxic smog mixture to accumulate over the town leading to devastating results.

 Air Pollution from local factories
Figure 1.Air Pollution from local factories
(PEXELS, 2017)

The Donora disaster was the first time that people really understood the implications and impact of air pollution. The citizens of Donora began raising awareness about air quality which prompted the government to take further action. In 1955, the Air Pollution Control Act was introduced which provided a series of clean air and air quality control acts (Fleming & Knorr, 1999). The Air Pollution Control Act eventually led to the creation of the Clean Air Act in 1963.

Purpose of the Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act ultimately forms the basis of the United States air pollution control policy. To protect public health and welfare nationwide, the Clean Air Act required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish nationwide ambient air quality standards for certain common and widespread pollutants based on the latest science (US EPA, 2017g). The six major air pollutants that the act encompasses are:

  1. Particulate Matter
  2. Ozone
  3. Sulfur Dioxide
  4. Nitrogen Dioxide
  5. Carbon Monoxide
  6. Lead

These pollutants can be released by a variety of different activities and by different sources illustrated in Figure 2. The four main types of air pollution sources are:

  1. Mobile sources such as planes, cars, trucks, and trains
  2. Stationary sources such as industrial facilities, processing factories, and oil refineries
  3. Area sources such as agricultural and city areas
  4. Natural sources such as from wildfires and volcanoes

Pollutant Sources
Figure 2. Types of Pollutant Sources
(National Park Service, 2017)

Increased levels of any of the six pollutants can lead to lung irritation, coughing or wheezing, shortness of breath, lung disease, and, in large concentrations, even death (Government of Canada, 2016).

Amendments

In 1970, major amendments were added to the Clean Air Act. The act contained deadlines and strengthened enforcement of emission limitations. The legislation developed comprehensive federal and state regulations for both stationary and mobile sources (US EPA, 2017a). Four regulatory programs were initiated for stationary sources and include:

  1. The National Ambient Air Quality Standards
  2. The State Implementation Plans
  3. The New Source Performance Standards
  4. The National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants

In 1970, the same year the Clean Air Act was amended, the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) was created. This act was created to consolidate a variety of federal research, monitoring, standard-setting, and enforcement activities into one agency (US EPA, 2016h). The EPA ensured environmental protection and a cleaner, healthier environment.

The Clean Air Act was again amended in 1977 and 1990 to set further requirements on air pollution and ambient air quality standards. In 1977, provisions were set out to help areas that failed to comply with deadlines for achievement of air quality standards (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1997). The amendments in 1990 to the Clean Air Act set forth a detailed and graduated program, reflecting the fact that problems in some areas are more difficult and complex than others (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1997). At this time, a list of 189 regulated hazardous air pollutants was created and a program was put in place to control emissions of these toxic air pollutants. As well, control programs were implemented regarding acid rain emission precursors and stratospheric ozone-depleting chemicals (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1997). Operating permits also became mandatory and enforcement provisions were increased.

Benefits

There are two major benefits as a result of the Clean Air Act; emission level reduction and health improvements. There are also significant cost benefits associated with implementing the Clearn Air Act.

Emission Reductions

Since 1970, aggregate emissions of the six major air pollutants have dropped approximately 69% as seen in Figure 3 (US EPA, 2017c). This is the total emission reduction by mass per year. The Clean Air Act established a framework for the attainment and maintenance of clean and healthy air quality levels while the EPA established national ambient air quality standards for the six major air pollutants. Each individual state was then required to develop implementation plans describing how they would control emission limits from individual sources to meet and maintain the national standards (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1997).

US Emission Reduction by 69%
Figure 3. Aggregate Emissions of Major Air Pollutants from 1970 to 2014
(US EPA, 2017c)

Since 1980, more than 25% of ground-level ozone and 92% of lead, from gasoline, has been reduced overall from the air allowing for a cleaner and healthier environment. As well, acid rain producing pollutants, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, have been reduced by 71% and 46%, respectively due to the implementation of the Clean Air Act (Langley, Finkelstein, Restrepo, & Spalding, 2016).

Health Benefits

As air pollution levels decrease, forecasters have predicted that due to the implementation of the Clean Air Act, hundreds of thousands of premature deaths have been avoided. In addition, millions of other non-fatal illnesses, including severe cardiac and respiratory diseases have also been prevented since 1963 (Ross, Chmiel, & Ferkol, 2012).

In 2010, approximately 160,000 deaths were prevented due to reduction of particulate (US EPA, 2017e). Table 1 depicts the health benefits of the Clean Air Act programs that reduce levels of fine particles and ozone.

Table 1. Health Benefits from Clean Air Act (US EPA, 2017e)
The Clean Air Act Amendments prevent: Year 2010
(in cases)
Year 2020
(in cases)
Adult Mortality – particles 160,000 230,000
Infant Mortality – particles 230 280
Mortality – ozone 4300 7100
Chronic Bronchitis 54,000 75,000
Heart Disease – Acute Myocardial Infarction 130,000 200,000
Asthma Exacerbation 1,700,000 2,400,000
Emergency Room Visits 86,000 120,000
School Loss Days 3,200,000 5,400,000
Lost Work Days 13,000,000 17,000,000

Cost Benefits

From 1970 to 1990, the approximate cost of implementing the Clean Air Act was $523 billion US dollars. Although this is a substantial price, the benefits for both health and environment impact, were approximated at $22 trillion US (Lockwood, 2012). From 1990 to 2020 the benefits were estimated to exceed costs by a factor of more than 30 to one. A high benefits estimate exceeded costs by 90 times while the low benefits estimate exceeded costs by about three to one (US EPA, 2017e). This is due to cleaner air that leads to better health and productivity and saves medical expenses related to air pollution health problems.

The Council of Economic Advisors’ data suggests that in 2009, 18% of Americans under the age of 65 were Medicaid or Medicare beneficiaries and 94% of Americans over the age of 65 relied on Medicare (Lockwood, 2012). Medicare and other similar health care programs are paid for by federal, state, and municipal governments. The U.S. government ultimately benefits from improved air quality both financially and environmentally.

Overall, the Clean Air Act has improved emission levels in the environment, helped reduced the number of air pollution related health problems, and saved the U.S. trillions of dollars since implementation.

Conclusion

The Clean Air Act has provided many benefits including improved health due to better air quality and emission level reduction of the six major air pollutants through strict regulations and enforcement. Amendments to the act provided the United States a legislation to control air pollution and an agency to research, monitor, set standards, and impose it. Ultimately the Clean Air Act has saved many lives and improved emission levels.

References

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Fleming, J. R., & Knorr, B. R. (1999). History of the Clean Air Act. Retrieved February 2, 2017, from American Meteorological Society: https://www.ametsoc.org/sloan/cleanair/

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Langley, C., Finkelstein, J., Restrepo, A., & Spalding, J. (2016). U.S. Climate Action Under the Clean Air Act. Climate Advisers and Sierra Club.

Lockwood, A. H. (2012, September 7). How the Clean Air Act Has Saved $22 Trillion in Health-Care Costs. Retrieved February 5, 2017, from The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/09/how-the-clean-air-act-has-saved-22-trillion-in-health-care-costs/262071/

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