Protecting Air Quality Under the Clean Air Act

By curbing air pollution, the Clean Air Act has built a track record of success, saving hundreds of thousands of human lives, and generally improving public health. Meanwhile it has been crucial to the health of the natural world, from plants and animals, the habitat they need to survive and thrive, and the climate.

Of course, in order to play its lifesaving role for people and the climate, the Clean Air Act must be enforced. The Center works hard to make sure its comprehensive pollution-control system is fully applied — not gutted or made into a meaningless paperwork exercise.

The Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create and enforce air-quality standards for the sake of the public’s health and welfare, which are directly and dramatically harmed by pollutants like smog, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide.

Particulate matter is air pollution made up of tiny particles smaller than 10 microns in diameter — about 10 times smaller than the width of a human hair. These particles can travel deep into the lungs, posing risks to human health that include serious respiratory illness and premature death. Particulate pollution also damages ecosystems and obscures scenic vistas, especially in national parks and wilderness areas. It’s one of several “criteria” air pollutants classified as especially dangerous to public health and welfare under the Act.

Then there’s sulfur dioxide pollution, mainly produced from the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, which causes a range of public-health and environmental problems. Sulfur dioxide contributes to heart and lung diseases and is particularly threatening to children and the elderly. Asthmatics are particularly at risk of suffering. Sulfur dioxide also contributes to acid rain and haze, damaging lakes, streams and ecosystems throughout the United States. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to identify and set national ambient air-quality standards to protect people and the environment from pollutants like sulfur oxides, but the agency often drags its feet.

Finally there’s ground-level ozone, commonly referred to as smog. While the ozone layer in the stratosphere is critical to protecting life on Earth, ozone at ground level is a dangerous pollution.  Smog mainly comes from the extraction, processing, transportation, and use of fossil fuels, including notorious fracking facilities. In humans smog impairs lung function, causes asthma attacks, and aggravates potentially fatal respiratory diseases like bronchitis and emphysema. It also harms the natural environment: The EPA has found that ozone’s effects on plants can damage entire ecosystems, including through biodiversity loss and decreased habitat quality. Ozone also makes it harder for bees and butterflies to pollinate flowers. Yet the agency consistently falls behind in its enforcement of the Clean Air Act’s ozone standards.

The Center’s Environmental Health program works in court and out — using lawsuits, petitions, advocacy and more — to make sure the EPA properly oversees every state’s plan to reduce and clean up pollution that hurts people and the environment.

Check out our press releases to learn more about the Center's Clean Air Act actions.

Smog in Los Angeles by Ben Christen/Flickr.