One in three Americans breathe polluted air. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 100 million people in 1997 lived in areas where air quality levels exceeded federal standards. In addition, scientists and health officials are increasingly concerned about the role air quality plays in childhood diseases. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, childhood asthma has tripled since the 1980s.

The Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970 as a means of protecting the public against harmful pollutants such as ozone (smog), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, lead and particulate soot. The Act requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish national health-based standards for these pollutants, while requiring state governments to comply with these standards by certain dates. It also gives the EPA authority to set national standards for major new sources of pollution such as automobiles, trucks and power plants, and charges the agency with developing controls for major new sources of toxic pollutants like benzene. The Clean Air Act has been amended twice - in 1977 and 1990 - in order to extend deadlines, authorize funding and to specify new clean air strategies.

Nationally, air quality has improved under the Clean Air Act. According to the Clean Air Trust, toxic lead emissions have dropped 98 percent, sulfur dioxide emissions have fallen 35 percent and carbon monoxide emissions have dropped by 32 percent. Despite this progress, however, many areas of the country still violate basic health standards for clean air.

Ozone is the main component of smog and the most widespread air pollutant. It is formed by the reaction of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, both of which are emitted by a variety of sources including motor vehicles, chemical plants and electric power plants. Exposure to ozone has been linked to increased emergency room visits for asthma and other respiratory problems. Children, the elderly and people with lung and heart disease are the most vulnerable.

Like ozone, particulate matter has been linked to increased hospital visits, asthma attacks and other respiratory ailments. Fine particulate matter results from motor vehicles, coal-fired power plants and residential fireplaces or wood stoves. Other larger particles are caused by windblown dust, unpaved roads, or are emitted from smokestacks or cars. Particulate matter is one of the major causes of regional haze in many parts of the U.S.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has established ambient air quality standards designed to protect public health and welfare from these two pollutants, as well as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and lead. All new and existing sources of air pollution are prohibited from emitting pollution that exceeds these standards. In 1999, however, a federal court of appeals overturned proposed stringent new air quality standards for ozone and particulate matter. The Court ruled that the EPA had unconstitutionally usurped powers reserved for Congress in setting those standards. In January 2000, the American Lung Association asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Electric utilities emit gases such as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and various heavy metals, which directly pose risks to human health and the environment. Some of these risks include, asthma and other respiratory problems, global warming and air and water pollution. Electric utilities also currently produce about 25 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions and are responsible for toxic mercury emissions. Older, coal-fired power plants are the biggest sources of harmful emissions.

The Clean Air Act was designed to regulate these harmful emissions. However, a major loophole in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 allows electric utilities to remain largely unregulated. Power plants built before 1970 are exempt from strict, new emission standards and thus emit up to an average of 10 times more pollution than newer plants.

Environmentalists are working to remove the loophole and force grandfathered power plants to meet new emissions standards. They are also working to encourage state and federal legislators to include financial incentives for energy efficiency and renewable energy development in any electricity restructuring legislation. Bills to accomplish these objectives have been introduced in both the House and Senate.

Since 1970, the number of miles driven by Americans has increased by 150 percent. In addition, people are driving large sport utility vehicles, minivans and other light trucks that have lower fuel efficiency standards and less stringent emission standards. These lower standards were first implemented at a time when light trucks were primarily used as commercial and agricultural work vehicles and represented a very small fraction of the market. In December 1999, the EPA proposed new regulations that will begin to close the loophole in the Clean Air Act by holding "light trucks" to the same tailpipe emissions standards as passenger cars.

Since 1995, Congress has successfully prohibited the Department of Transportation from raising this standard, known as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard. Opponents of stricter fuel efficiency standards argue that they will result in more expensive automobiles and will encourage the construction of smaller and lighter vehicles, which are less safe. However CAFE proponents believe stricter standards would both improve air quality and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

For more information on clean air issues and what you can do to help, check out these Web sites:

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© 2000-2018, League of Conservation Voters Education Fund



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© 2000-2018, League of Conservation Voters Education Fund