Birmingham, AL. 1970. Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Birmingham, AL. 1970. Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Breathing is not something we frequently think about it, even though we all take roughly 20,000 breaths of air every day. It can be easy to take clean air for granted. But for the nearly half of Americans who still live in areas with unhealthy air, the lack of clean air is often a top of mind concern – especially for those with underlying health conditions worsened by poor air quality.

Fifty years ago, the Clean Air Act was established to guarantee everyone access to healthy air, and since this landmark public health law has been in effect, it has dramatically reduced air pollution across the country and saved millions of lives. Our recent “Clean Air for All: 50 Years of the Clean Air Act ” symposium highlighted this tremendous progress—but also brought to light the amount of work we still have left to do. 

The symposium featured a stellar line-up of speakers on four different panels covering different aspects of the law’s impact and the future of clean air efforts. The Clean Air Act’s overall success is a result of meticulous and insightful planning, and impressive foresight on behalf of the authors. Tom Jorling, one of the key Congressional staff authors of the law, noted that there was a lot of effort that went into laying the groundwork for the bipartisan support of the law in Congress. Jorling shared that the senators who sponsored the law participated in 30 hearings where they expressed “frustration that air pollution was a continuing problem and that Congress had not provided either the objective or the tools to actually meet the promise of cleaner the air.”  

Professor Ann Carlson shared powerful stories about the progress Los Angeles has made in the past five decades. Carlson called the Clean Air Act “the most extraordinary public health success in United States history.” She specifically cited the dramatic improvement in LA’s smog, or ozone pollution – emphasizing how severe the issue was in 1970. 

But Los Angeles residents still experience far too many days with unhealthy air. The top air pollution regulator for the region, Wayne Nastri, acknowledged how much more pollution must be reduced to protect public health, and noted that the federal government must keep the pressure on states and industry to reduce harmful emissions even further. 

Despite the overwhelming praise of the law and its impact during the event, the persistent themes of inequity and environmental racism were woven throughout speakers’ remarks. Far too many communities, especially those of color, continue to bear a disproportionate burden of air pollution.  

In fact, according to the American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report, people of color are 1.5 times more likely to live in a county with unhealthy air. WE ACT for Environmental Justice’s Peggy Shepard noted, “We all have a right to clean air, and it is clear what polluted air is doing in terms of deaths and health disparities… we’ve got to find a way to focus on the most vulnerable communities and bring them into stronger environmental protection.”

California’s innovative new Community Air Protection Program, which aims to reduce pollution exposures in disproportionately disadvantaged communities, came up at several points in the symposium. The program augments the Clean Air Act by enhancing the ability to monitor and improve air quality in more vulnerable communities, and it offers a model for other state governments to build on.

Former EPA Administrator Bill Reilly said of those fighting for environmental justice, “ Nobody is asking for special favors. They’re not getting the benefit of the equal protection of the laws and that’s what they should have.”

The hard-won reductions in pollution under the Clean Air Act are also being undermined by the impacts of climate change. Many speakers emphasized that climate change is adversely impacting public health, due to causes like wildfire smoke and higher levels of ozone. The Lung Association’s Deb Brown observed that “over the past four years, the “State of the Air” report has shown a disturbing trend, that America’s air quality is actually getting worse. Climate change drives the conditions that increase harmful air pollutants. Rising temperatures lead to an increase in the formation of ground-level ozone pollution, and climate change is making wildfires more frequent and intense – resulting in more particle pollution from the smoke.” 

Technical innovation has been key in achieving the remarkable reductions in air pollution thus far. One of the Symposium’s panels focused on the innovation that resulted from specific pollution reduction standards. "The power of the United States in terms of world leadership is enormous. We embarked on taking lead out of gasoline, now the entire world has taken lead out of gasoline…the U.S. can be a model," said former Assistant Administrator of Air, Noise and Radiation at EPA David Hawkins

Symposium speakers also acknowledged that the law plays an essential role in promoting innovation by requiring or creating incentives for it. It also emphasized that the next generation of clean air policies must be designed to accelerate the pace of innovation in clean energy and other technologies. Margo Oge, Former Director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality at EPA, pointed out that it will take more than just federal action to get us where we need to be. “Cities have a big role to play in reducing emissions. Seattle, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh have higher electric vehicle sales than average because they have put incentives in the marketplace.”

Chair of the American Thoracic Society’s Environmental Health Committee Mary Rice, M.D., lamented the efforts of the current EPA leadership which has ignored or undermined the best and latest scientific findings, even though the law was designed to use science to continue to improve policy.

Three former EPA administrators, along with several other former EPA staff, praised the career EPA staff for their dedication in implementing the law, even though they often are criticized by state officials. Former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, who also led Florida’s environmental protection agency, said the Clean Air Act is clever for acknowledging that there is a role for states in the broader effort to clean up the air, especially because air pollution doesn’t respect state boundaries. So, it is important for the EPA to step back in if a state is not doing its job to meet its requirements under the law.

As we look back on the past 50 years and ahead to the remaining challenges, it’s hard not to ask – where do we go from here? There are key lessons from the Clean Air Act that should continue to be employed and serve as guiding principles.

  1. Use the tools of the law to provide health protections for all communities. Too many people are still waiting for clean air. The priority must be to protect those with the greatest burden. If the focus is placed on who bears the greatest burden, the benefits of better health and a better future will accrue to all. 
  2. Think big and reward innovators. From the beginning, the Clean Air Act set bold goals and challenged companies and regulators to do what was needed to protect public health and the environment, not what meets an arbitrary cost or feasibility test. Once the goals are set, the law allows the flexibility to find the most effective solutions.
  3. Follow the science. The Clean Air Act compels states, tribes, local governments and the federal government to act based on what science says is appropriate to protect health. Health standards for ozone, particulate matter and other criteria pollutants must reflect the latest, best science. EPA must listen to the best experts, consider all sound health studies, and not allow political expedience to undermine what is required. The same scientific rigor must be applied to dealing with a changing climate.
  4. Use all the law’s tools. Former EPA Administrator Bill Reilly spoke eloquently about the importance of putting a price on carbon, but he cautioned that the Clean Air Act’s authority and the courts should not be traded away to accommodate the oil industry of other interest groups. Reilly dismissed the Baker Schultz climate plan a “pernicious bill…because it does immunize [the oil industry] against any further lawsuits or responsibilities,” and stated that “it is important to defend the Clean Air Act in this conversation as the most appropriate and effective instrument with genuine power that we have to address climate” (4:54).
  5. Rally the public to action. When the nation comes together, as Republicans and Democrats did in 1970, 1977 and 1990 with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, we can achieve incredible things. The 1970 law represented a clear agreement on the need for action, with only one recorded vote in opposition in the House. This law is a remarkable example of the public rallying the country’s leaders to unite and create legislation that prioritizes and protects the health and well-being of the American people.
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