Heritage- The Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act- A Bit of Our Environmental Legislative Heritage


Okay, so I’m not 100% sure if the title of this “Environmental Legislative Heritage” is technically an appropriate/official term, but what I mean when I say it is, the Clean Air Act is a bit of history that we should familiarize ourselves with. Why? Because it’s an important piece of environmental legislation that really strongly has affected our air quality over the years. It is important to learn about our history in order to keep the good (the act itself, and many other pieces of environmental legislation and action) and avoid future bad. “Those who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”—George Santayana.

To begin, why is air pollution bad? Well, it affects the economy, it affects public health, and it also affects the health of the planet.

Air pollution is bad for industry because if there aren’t clear skies, it can make it difficult for pilots to fly, delaying flights and affecting transportation and trade patterns. It also damages buildings and crops, which has a negative impact on the agricultural industry and our infrastructure. It is also linked to a loss of agricultural and forestry yields.

From an environmental perspective, air pollution harms the health of plants, wildlife, and the environment. It also causes damage to the ozone layer, contributing to the greenhouse effect.

And finally, from a public health perspective, air pollution can cause respiratory problems, cause cancer, birth defects, and long term injury to the lungs, brain, and nerve damage. It also makes people sick, causing a loss of economic productivity due to sick days.

The government started to realize some of this back in 1960 and decided to pass the original Clean Air Act. This first law set up funding for the federal government to study and clean up air pollution. Essentially, they knew that pollution existed, but they didn’t know exactly what or why we had it, and what could be done. They knew it had an impact on public health too, because smog was making people sick.

The law was amended in 1977, setting National Ambient Air Quality Standards, to help protect public health and regulate the emissions of six key hazardous pollutants. It was amended again in 1990 to set new goals, as in dates, for achieving these NAAQS, since many areas of the country had not achieved them yet.

So the question is, how does it work? I had to try wading through a lot of EPA and government jargon to make it work, but luckily, I was able to find the “Plain English” version of the act on the EPA website, which was an excellent guide that told me all I need to know. I highly recommend checking out for more details!

Under the act, the EPA sets limits on air pollutants, and supports state and local agencies by providing research, expert studies, engineering designs, and funding to help support clean air. The responsibility then falls to the individual states to develop solutions to clean up pollution, monitor air quality, inspect industrial facilities, and enforce air pollution cleanup regulations. The 1990 revision even allows tribal nations to implement their own air pollution control programs. HURRAY! I’m all about anything that recognizes the sovereignty of tribal nations, as referenced in an earlier article. It makes sense for states and tribal nations to enforce and make the plans to reduce air pollution, because they have a much better idea of the local issues that municipalities and states face. The federal government provides support, states and tribal nations make it happen.

Since 1970, you can see the results. The six pollutants mentioned in the Clean Air Act have decreased by more than 50%. Air toxins from chemical plants, petroleum refineries, and papermills have been reduced by nearly 70%. The production of most ozone depleting chemicals has ceased, and new cars and 90% cleaner- and getting even cleaner with great hybrid and electric options coming in the future. ANNNDD the great news is that US GDP has tripled, energy consumption has increased by 50%, and vehicle use has increased by almost 200%. The pollutants have gone down and industry has improved. Win-Win.

It’s important to realize the positive benefits of this piece of regulation, especially as we are now under the administration of a President who promises to roll back two pieces of legislation for every one that they create. The logic behind that, deregulation for the sake of deregulation, is so foolish when there are so many pieces of regulation that have done us so much good. We cannot be blind and think that individuals and states always know the best course of action—particularly in issues regarding pollution and the responsible care of our land. That’s what, although imperfect, the EPA is such a valuable agency to keep around. The solution lies in fixing the agency itself, not throwing out all its regulations and crippling the agency itself.

Remember, those who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat it. Are you interested in going back to 50% more air pollution? I’m not.






Photography Credit Chicago Tribune:




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