The United States Clean Air Act turns 50: Is the air any better half a century later?

The Clean Air Act has significantly benefitted, health, the environment and the United States economy.

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Los Angeles air quality, historically bad, has improved since the Clean Air Act was passed

Indoor and outdoor air pollution results in over 7 million deaths worldwide each year. To raise awareness of the threat that air pollution poses to our health and planet, the United Nations Environment Programme, Climate and Clean Air Coalition, and the World Health Organization launched the BreatheLife campaign to support communities and global leaders in implementing solutions that will reduce air pollution for a healthier and more sustainable future.

In countries such as the United States, national legislation has been implemented to address the air pollution crisis. Fifty years ago, the United States Congress passed the 1970 Clean Air Act. This act has resulted in improved air quality across the country. But despite the success of the Clean Air Act in controlling common pollutants, air pollution continues to be our single biggest environmental health risk today.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, industrial facilities continued to pollute the nation’s air with little regulation, leading to increased cases of emphysema and asthma. The plummeting air quality resulted in hundreds of deaths as killer smog blanketed major citiesPoor visibility raised concerns, while instances of acid rain made air pollution an interstate issue, leading Congress to react to the crisis. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, tightening regulations in 1977 and making further amendments in 1990.   

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Los Angeles through a smoggy twilight in 1975 (Getty Archive)

Fifty years on, air quality in the United States has improved dramatically by controlling common pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) and placing restrictions on dangerous air toxics. However, in recent years, there has been an increase in dangerous air pollution levels accompanied by demands for stronger air quality regulations to mitigate health risks, combat the climate crisis and support economic growth.

The impact

Along with improving visibility, reducing the risk of acid rain and helping protect the ozone layer, a range of other health, environmental and financial benefits can be traced to the Clean Air Act.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that amendments made to the Act are responsible for preventing over 230,000 early deaths by 2020, as well as significantly reducing the frequency of respiratory diseases including chronic bronchitis and asthma exacerbation.

Reducing the concentration of harmful pollutants in the air is central to the Act’s function. Between 1990 and 2018, harmful chemicals have dropped significantly, with carbon monoxide falling 74 per cent, ground level ozone declining by 21 per cent and lead decreasing by 82 per cent from 2010. The environmental benefits that stem from these reductions include decreased warming as well as healthier soil, freshwater bodies and vegetation.

The financial legacy of the Act has also stimulated the nation’s economy. The US$65 billion worth of costs associated with implementing the Act’s measures has been more than paid for through reduced medical bills and increased worker productivity. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates almost US$2 trillion in benefits.

Ongoing air quality issues

While the nation has made significant strides in improving air quality, recent data shows an increase in harmful pollutants in the atmosphere. Accordingly, there are health, environmental and financial costs that correlate with the country’s ongoing air quality issues.

Where the United States continues to fall short is in the health sector. Although hundreds of thousands of deaths have been prevented through the Clean Air Act, the United States remains a leading country for premature pollution-related deaths.

In addition to health, despite the reduction of harmful pollutants in the air, one pervading environmental issue is CO2 emissions. CO2 has had an increase of 2.9 per cent between 1990 and 2017, and often, sources of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants are the same.

Helena Molin Valdes, Head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat says, “It’s very important to quantify the benefits to both our health and climate from mitigating air pollution. As countries raise the level of their ambition for climate mitigation through their Nationally Determined Contributions, they can realize immediate benefits for the health of their population.”

Finally, while the financial benefits that stemmed from the Clean Air Act are notable, the American economy still sacrifices roughly 5 per cent of its gross domestic product annually to poor air quality occurring primarily in the agriculture, utilities, manufacturing and transportation sectors.

Half a century after it was introduced, the impact of the Clean Air Act is clear. Numerous deaths have been prevented, greenhouse gas emissions are now recognized as a danger to public health and the economy has been stimulated. Nevertheless, the United States still accounts for 13 per cent of global greenhouse gases and is currently on-trend to overshoot its Paris Agreement target by 15 per cent or more.

Continuing to improve air quality in the United States is an essential step needed to mitigate future damage to public health, the economy and the environment, and will place the nation in a better position to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

This story first appeared on the UN Environment Programme's website here

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