Air Pollution as it Stands Today in the US
by Sarah Grace Ward
Sarah Grace is a student at Unity College working towards her Masters in Public Science in Wildlife Conservation and Management. She has a particular interest in how ethics and political systems connect to and shape the environmental movement. Each week in February, Sarah Grace will spotlight a different topic in pursuit of her capstone project. Please fill out survey questions to help her research and development.
As a thank you for participating, Happy Earth will be providing 25pts for each week's survey submission!
Unless you have the luxury of working from home, we all experience the businesses of rushing to work either in our private vehicle or on public transportation. As we follow our normal routes into the city, we may observe more pollen than normal, or the persistent fog in our way. But, if we reversed our clocks to decades earlier, we may have experienced an intense smog or soot bogging down our morning commute. From the Industrial Revolution to present day, air quality has been central to the everyday life of an American, whether we know it or not. Fortunately for us, our overall air quality has improved since the 1700s. Nonetheless, we still have work to do.
The Industrial Revolution spanned across the later half of the 1700s and into the early 1800s, which positively contributed to economic growth and innovation, however had detrimental effects on the environment. Due to an increase in coal burning and industrial manufacturing, smog and soot had drastically increased. Poor air quality impacted human health and lead to property damage following the Industrial Revolution. In the 1850s, acid rain was linked to coal-power plants, which negatively impacted plants, fish, soil, forests, and property. Decades later, in Donora, Pennsylvania, in 1948, a deadly smog encapsulated the town killing 20 people and leaving over 7,000 people sick. Later in the 1950s, a geochemist discovered how a rise in CO2 levels in the air can contribute to climate change, which was corroborated in the 1980s after computer modeling.
The Clean Air Act was established in 1970 with the goal of reducing dangerous pollutants within the United States’ air and further protect public health. Under this Act, air pollution would be addressed on a federal, state, local, and tribal basis. Air quality has significantly improved since the Clean Air Act was passed; notably, there is much less visible air pollution than in the 1970s. However, in the United States there are still challenges in air pollution control. Transportation in its various modes is a leading contributor to air pollution. Similarly, greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, worsening climate change and air quality. Poor air quality can have substantial impacts on public health including respiratory illnesses and heart disease. It is also important to note that air quality overall has improved, however low-income and marginalized communities still struggle to have clean air and are often pushed to the wayside when focusing on air quality.
The improvement of air quality can be attributed to the air quality divisions of the Environmental Protection Agency. Through federal, state, local, and tribal plans and agencies, air pollution released through industry has significantly reduced. Similarly, the EPA has outlined important pollutants, namely lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and ozone, which have specific air quality standards when being emitted. Lastly, the EPA has identified the air quality index in which any individual can see the level of air pollution and health risk in their area.
Within the United States there are a variety of options to help the Environmental Protection Agency move forward with bettering air quality. Transitioning to clean energy cars, taking public transportation when available, using environmentally safe cleaning products, composting, reducing waste, and planting trees are all small steps an individual or community can take to contribute to improving air quality. While air quality has improved, it is still important to ensure it does not worsen and continue the trajectory to safer and cleaner air.
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