The Clean Air Act: A Success Story for Environmental Policy Experts

As an expert in environmental policy, I have witnessed the tremendous impact of the Clean Air Act. This landmark legislation, enacted in 1970 and reinforced in 1990, gave the federal government the power to enforce regulations that limit air pollution. And the results have been nothing short of remarkable. Over the first 20 years of its implementation, the Clean Air Act prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths and nearly 700,000 cases of chronic bronchitis. One of the most remarkable aspects of this law is that its benefits are tangible and visible.

In many communities, the air is visibly cleaner and safer to breathe. Fewer people are being hospitalized for heart and respiratory problems caused by smog. The Clean Air Act has also had a positive impact on people's daily lives. With cleaner air, more people are able to attend school and work without being hindered by illness. Additionally, this legislation has brought together critical elements for climate action at both federal and state levels.

However, despite these successes, the law has faced numerous challenges over the years. In recent years, the Trump administration attempted to repeal the Clean Air Act in order to weaken or not enforce clean air standards in favor of the dirty energy industry. But this law is far from over. Every year, more than 60,000 Americans continue to die prematurely from the effects of air pollution, with a disproportionate number being poor, black, and Latino individuals. Furthermore, due to historically racist and discriminatory practices in housing, roads, and other developments, those who suffer the most from air pollution are often low-income communities and communities of color that are already burdened by pollution. The Clean Air Act regulates six major pollutants through the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS): ozone (O), particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO), nitrogen dioxide (NO), and lead (Pb). These pollutants have been linked to a variety of health problems, including heart attacks, strokes, cancer, dementia, premature birth, and diabetes. More than 100 regulatory analyses have been conducted to estimate the effects of specific regulations under the Clean Air Act.

However, these studies are based on limited information before the regulations can be observed in action. This means that the true impact of the Clean Air Act is likely even greater than what has been reported. Despite being pushed and pulled by different presidential administrations and their priorities, the Clean Air Act has survived and continues to make a positive impact on our environment and public health. The first retrospective analysis estimated the benefits and costs of the initial Clean Air Act regulations before 1990. This involved comparing the differences between historical environmental and economic conditions observed with the current Clean Air Act and hypothetical scenarios that projected economic and environmental conditions without the regulation in place. The Clean Air Act was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, with a vote of 73 to 0 in the Senate and 374 to 1 in the House of Representatives. On December 31, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed it into law with the motto of protecting clean air for “future generations of the United States.” Since then, this law has resulted in real standards that have reduced air pollution in the United States by 70 percent, despite population growth, economic expansion, and an increase in cars on our highways.

Raúl Milloy
Raúl Milloy

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