What is the Clean Air Act?
For forty years the Clean Air Act has given the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to set limits on harmful air pollutants. From mercury to lead, the EPA has enforced needed safeguards to ensure basic health and environmental protection from air pollution for all Americans. For this, it is one of the strongest public health protection laws in the country.
Since Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law in 1970, it has prevented over 400,000 premature deaths and hundreds of millions of cases of respiratory illnesses, such as asthma; the six commonly found air pollutants have decreased by more than 50 percent, while the U.S. gross domestic product, or GDP, has tripled; air toxics from large industrial sources, such as chemical plants, petroleum refineries, and paper mills have been reduced by nearly 70 percent; and, new cars, light trucks, and heavy-duty diesel engines are more than 90 percent cleaner.
The process for cleaning up air quality starts with the EPA setting national health-based air quality standards on dangerous pollutants like ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. The Clean Air Act also gives EPA the authority to limit emissions of air pollutants coming from sources like chemical plants, utilities, and steel mills.
In 2009, after thorough scientific investigation, the EPA ruled that climate change pollutants are dangerous to human welfare. And on January 2, 2011, the EPA’s rulemaking for regulating these emissions took effect.
After the EPA sets a standard on pollutants, states, tribes and local governments use their understanding of local industries, geography, housing, and travel patterns to create an implementation plan to clean up polluted areas. These plans must meet national health standards by a certain date.
The EPA helps by providing scientific research, expert studies, engineering design, and money to support clean air programs. Since 1970, Congress and the EPA have provided several billion dollars to states, tribes, and local governments to reduce air pollution.
The EPA then approves implementation plans that reduce air pollution. If a plan does not meet the necessary requirements, EPA can issue sanctions against the state and, if necessary, take over enforcing the Clean Air Act in that area.
Why do we need to defend the Clean Air Act?
Despite the health benefits and bi-partisan support that the Clean Air Act has fostered, polluters and their allies in Congress are currently working to weaken Clean Air Act standards. They are proposing rollbacks that would have a devastating impact on our health and economy.
As polluters spend millions of dollars lobbying members of Congress to weaken standards, we need to tell our elected officials to keep protecting American families and our environment.
If you are interested in taking action on the issue, check out our other blog, Fighting for Clean Air.
Sixty community members gathered last Tuesday morning for the Green Ideas and Ham Breakfast. Guests heard from Minnesota Department of Public Health Assistant Commissioner Aggie Leitheiser and public health professional and mother of a son with asthma, Shawna Hedlund. Following the presentations was a lively discussion about clean air in Minnesota, when guests had the opportunity to ask the speakers questions.
Shawna Hedlund balanced her presentation between her experience as a mother to a child with asthma and her expertise as a public health professional. She was able to relate statistics on asthma to her own son’s struggle. For example, in 2020 $107 million is expected to be spent on respiratory and related illnesses in MN, while her son’s medical expenses already average $3000 more per year than his brother without asthma.
Shawna also highlighted why children are at greater risk for developing respiratory illnesses. She noted both the behavioral and physiological differences between children and adults. One example she used was that an infant’s average air intake is twice the level of a resting adult.
Commissioner Leitheiser set the stage for a great discussion by introducing the basics of the Clean Air Act and the EPA, and sharing news from the Minnesota Department of Health. It was encouraging to hear that they have been preparing to adapt to climate change. She noted that with a new situation and environment will come new health concerns.
Commissioner Leitheiser also presented the Minnesota Department of Health’s new effort to provide access to Minnesota data on health, the environment, and other risk factors that may impact public health. One of their hopes is that by making the data available to everyone, policy-makers will be able to better develop and evaluate policies and programs that protect health.
During the Q&A, we heard testimonies from people living with respiratory illnesses, and a strong concern for air pollution policy.
For forty years, the Clean Air Act has been protecting public health in the U.S., preventing over 400,000 premature deaths and hundreds of millions of cases of respiratory illnesses. But, as Commissioner Leitheiser noted, the environment and our knowledge about it is changing. We need to update our policies to reflect these changes.
The EPA is currently updating it’s safeguards to reduce toxic air pollution from power plants. You can take action to submit a comment for strong protections against air pollution, like mercury, arsenic, acid gases, dioxins, and other air toxics.
The Union of Concerned Scientists released an excellent peer-reviewed report Thursday called Climate Change and Your Health: Rising Temperatures, Worsening Ozone Pollution. The full national report is at www.ucsusa.org (PDF 2.3MB).
The report found climate change-induced ozone increases in Minnesota could result in about 62,000 additional cases of serious respiratory illnesses and almost $107 million in additional health costs in 2020. Addressing these two problems—reducing ozone pollution and global warming—share the same solution: reducing reliance on fossil fuels like coal and oil. To get a handle on these problems, we need the EPA to set stronger ozone standards as well as global warming standards for power plants. The EPA is set to establish these rules this July. Unchecked global warming could threaten public health and increase health costs. Joining a conference call for media to discuss the report’s findings were the UCS report authors and representatives from Fresh Energy, Minnesota Conservation Federation, American Lung Association, and a friend of the Will Steger Foundation, a mother and public health professional with a son who has acute asthma. The call highlighted startling facts: 50% of Americans are breathing unhealthy air in the summer; 9% of children in Minnesota have been diagnosed with asthma; and rising temperatures exacerbate ozone and global warming pollution which means an increase in asthma, respiratory illness and premature death, especially for children, elderly and low income populations.
The fact that the EPA will be establishing rules this summer, including a new ozone pollution standard and another that places limits on emissions from power plants, is extremely promising. The EPA has been very effective for 40 years at reducing air and water pollution in the US and protection our health and environment. We want to maintain the EPA’s authority to do what it does best.
Watching Zach, Taylor, Alec and Brock (from Stillwater High School) march down the National Mall holding the YEA! MN Banner and cheering “Clean Energy, Green Jobs” chants.
Gene standing in front of 200 Minnesota college students proposing an action group to oppose the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine in Arrowhead, Minnesota.
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