May is Clean Air Month

by Marina Courtney

Many things contribute to air pollution, including motor vehicles, fossil fuel combustion, and industrial facilities. However, the one thing they all have in common is human activity. 

The societal “big hair” trends from a few decades ago are a telling example. Excessive use of hairspray aerosols containing chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, contributed to severe ozone depletion, eventually causing a large hole to form in our ozone layer. Had it not been for a historic ban on CFC aerosols, our atmosphere wouldn’t be where it is today. 

But just as important to remember: we were able to solve the problem, thanks to collective action.

While there is still plenty of room for improvement, air quality today looks much different than it did a few decades ago. Continuing this trend will only boost the health of the planet and its residents.

A Look Back

The very first Earth Day is now commonly thought of as the birth of the modern environmental movement. On April 22, 1970, 20 million people across the United States (10% of the population) took to the streets and institutions to rally for cleaner air. 

This historic day was a nationally collaborative effort between the government and US residents, organized entirely by environmental activists. Then by the end of 1970, the Nixon Administration established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and passed the Clean Air Act.

What Is The Clean Air Act?

The Clean Air Act (CAA) is a comprehensive federal law requiring the EPA to place safeguards on pollution from vehicle exhaust, refueling emissions, and evaporating gasoline. The CAA also marked the establishment of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), which protect public health by establishing health-based limits for six major air pollutants: particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), ozone (O3), nitrogen oxides (NOX), sulfur oxides (SOX), carbon monoxide (CO), and lead.

Each of these air pollutants is linked to numerous health problems, such as premature death, exacerbated chronic conditions, and worsening respiratory and cardiac symptoms. By reducing exposure to these pollutants, we can decrease hospitalizations and further health complications.

Federal Legislation

Since the 1970s, the EPA has made significant headway in improving air quality. Let’s take a look at the last half-century of advancements in cleaner air.

Since the Clean Air Act was imposed, the EPA has:

1975:  Lowered sulfur dioxide emissions as a result of lime scrubbing research
1979:  Outlined dangers of acid rain
1988:  Researched impacts of ozone pollution on the lungs
             Cleaner emissions standards as a result of nitrogen oxides research
1992:  Found new alternatives to CFCs and Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)
             Performed a health risk assessment on second-hand smoke exposure
1994:  Developed radon mitigation technology
1997:  Strengthened standards on particulate matter
1998:  Designed a new strategy for measuring soot pollution
              Launched the first Community Multi-scale Air Quality (CMAQ) modeling system
2000: Released cardiovascular effects of particulate matter
2001:  Performed air quality monitoring following terror attacks on the World Trade Center
2004: Unveiled the first national air quality forecasting capability
2009: Released dangers of greenhouse gases
2010:  Endorced the Clean Cooking Alliance for clean cookstove technologies
2011:   United with NASA and others on improving global air quality measurements
2012:   Released impacts of climate change on watersheds
              Supported the initiative for air sensor technology
2017:   Developed the first fenceline monitoring regulation for chemical facilities
              Launched Smoke Sense Project and Smoke Sense mobile application
2019:  Declared wildland fire research high priority
2020:  Marked five years in progress in household energy research
              Gained a better understanding of air quality’s impact on cardiovascular disease
              Launched a pilot for AirNow Fire and Smoke Map to track wildfires
              Tested the first next-generation emissions measurements method
              Gained a better understanding of how volatile chemical products impact air quality
              Studied Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) emissions
              Developed a new technique to measure greenhouse gas emissions in reservoirs
              Studies new ozone measurement methods during wildfires and planned fires
              Released new testing protocols for ozone pollution and particulate matter
              Published research on the reality of environmental racism
2021:  Offered insight into how to reduce wildfire smoke indoors
              Researched the link between heart-related illness and wildfire smoke
              Updated technology in the Smoke Sense application
              Developed a test method for PFAS emissions
              Researched genetic impacts of an unhealthy neighborhood environment
              Uncovered how everyday household products containing VOCs impact air pollution
              Launched an air monitor loan program to assist with increased wildfires
              Launched Cleaner Indoor Air contest with prizes
              Piloted an odor-reporting application
              Researched the public health threats of wildfire smoke
              Published a study that found people of color are exposed to more air pollution
2022:  Releases supplement to the Integrated Science Assessment for particulate matter
              Updated the AirNow Fire and Smoke application
              Developed a new air monitoring technology that exposes leaks and irregular emissions
              Made major updates to the Air Sensor Guidebook

North Carolina Legislation

In 2022 the N.C. General Assembly passed the Clean Smokestacks Act, also known as the Air Quality/Electric Utilities Bill. This law required power plants to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 77% in 2009 and sulfur dioxide emissions by 73% in 2013. 

Imposing stronger regulations and enforcing transparency of coal-fired power plant emissions marked a major health milestone. For the past two decades, the Clean Smokestacks Act has protected North Carolinians from dangerous air pollutants that cause and worsen asthma and other lung diseases. 

Consequently, over the past 20 years, the state’s haze buildup has faded, drawing more people to the natural beauty of North Carolina.

What You Can Do

There are many ways you can reduce your carbon footprint and make North Carolina (and the planet) a better place to live for everyone:

  • Consider alternatives to motorized vehicles, such as bicycles or walking.
  • Seek public transportation or carpool to reduce fossil fuels.
  • Drive a fuel-efficient or electric vehicle for high-mileage treks. 
  • Whenever possible, avoid sitting in heavy traffic and idling.
  • Switch to solar energy to power your home, if possible.
  • Turn off lights when not in use and change the bulbs to LED.
  • Reuse and recycle.
  • Minimize water usage.
  • Reduce meat from your diet—especially red meat.

Every action, big or small, can make a difference when we all do our part. 

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