In 1948, a small town disaster suddenly brought a silent killer loudly onto the national scene. A zinc plant had emitted enough toxic smoke to kill twenty residents of Donora, Pennsylvania. Air quality in the United States had been steadily worsening since the first steam plants of the Industrial Revolution opened in the 19th century, but this disaster lit a spark with environmental activists that led to the development of the first air quality control acts in the United States.
This disaster highlighted the importance of clean air in relation to quality of life, human health, and as will later be revealed environmental health. Because smoke and toxic pollutants can often become invisible within seconds of being released into the atmosphere, they’re very easy to overlook. Physical garbage dumps were established, but air pollution blew by all forms of regulation; air polluters skirted the cost of paying for the proper disposal or treatment of their atmospheric waste.
In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. The novel brought attention to the rise of DDT pollution and its negative effects on animal and environmental health. Through powerful imagery, the novel drew attention to towns losing their bird populations to DDT. Bird watchers, legislators, and everyday Americans united together against the use of DDT in insecticides to save our birds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture made some moves to phase out the use of DDT, but the Clean Air Act was written into law shortly after in 1963 to codify the nationwide need to protect our air.
The 1963 version of the Clean Air Act was not extremely effective and is overshadowed by the more effective and influential Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970, which set aside specific plans to reduce automobile emissions, industrial emissions, and also formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA would specifically be charged with regulating the air, water, and land quality in the United States. The establishment of a national environmental regulating body paved the way for environmental regulation internationally as the United States became a role model of environmental control. This new era of environmental regulation has led to the general decrease of the six major criteria air pollutants: lead, NOxs, SOxs, carbon monoxide, ozone, and particulate matter. Currently, the most pressing atmospheric issue is carbon (CO2) pollution. Carbon contributes to the greenhouse gas effect, which warms the planet through accumulation of greenhouse gases that retain heat in the atmosphere and is now ubiquitous in news headlines.
Since 1970, the EPA has been the major governing body of pollution control in the United States, and has the ban of DDT, the decrease of Nitrogen Oxides, Sulfur Oxides, and more to its name. The EPA battled even more issues like acid rain, ozone depletion, and urban air pollution in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. The Agency now also monitors National Ambient Air Quality Standards that regulate all the criteria pollutants.
The EPA is widely seen as a very effective tool in protecting our air quality and has kept us from the dark, grey future pictured in Silent Spring, but unfortunately to see the road that many urban U.S. centers could have gone down, one does not need to look further than Los Angeles. The city of Angels is the worst polluted city in the United States. Air pollution in Los Angeles manifests itself in a multitude of harmful ways. For one example, air pollution from industry interacts with ozone in the atmosphere and brings the ozone down into a lower surface layer, where it interacts harmfully with the human respiratory system. Even worse so, the loss of ozone in the upper atmosphere allows more harmful UV rays to pass through the Earth’s atmosphere which worsens global warming and can cause skin cancer. Just this one facet of pollution can cause asthma, lung and skin cancer, and premature deaths. Air pollution becomes a layered justice issue as well in that these effects are disproportionately spread across low income and minority groups.
Fortunately, the EPA, as an umbrella organization, can help regulate California and work with California’s in-state environmental groups to control air pollution, and the EPA has been relatively successful in other states where acid rain, surface ozone, and other criteria pollutants have been abated.
However, the Clean Air is under attack at the national level, as the Trump Administration seeks to relax the EPA’s role in protecting the United States from polluters. As evidenced in the long evolution of the Clean Air Act, only through creating stricter standards can we protect ourselves from air pollution. Ozone and the other criteria pollutants are harmful to human health at all levels, but rather than continuing to battle these emissions down, Andrew Wheeler’s new Affordable Clean Energy Rule will allow industrial polluters to use a wider array of technologies than just the most environmentally friendly ones. Relaxing regulations will cause the many health problems we see in Los Angeles and also walk back decades of progress .
Rather than waiting for the next focusing event, we must take action. You can write your state Representatives to pass laws that force the EPA to pass stricter rules on air pollution. These decades-old rules have given us $2 trillion in benefits with only $40 million in costs . Clearly, the right step is to continue pushing for clean air as it is so economically viable. You can write representatives about this, but it is also important to vote for state and most importantly Presidential representatives that will push for cleaner air.