Air Pollution: Current and Future Challenges

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Despite dramatic progress cleaning the air since 1970, air pollution in the United States continues to harm people’s health and the environment. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA continues to work with state, local and tribal governments, other federal agencies, and stakeholders to reduce air pollution and the damage that it causes.

Air Pollution Challenges: Common Pollutants

Great progress has been made in achieving national air quality standards, which EPA originally established in 1971 and updates periodically based on the latest science. One sign of this progress is that visible air pollution is less frequent and widespread than it was in the 1970s.

However, air pollution can be harmful even when it is not visible. Newer scientific studies have shown that some pollutants can harm public health and welfare even at very low levels. EPA in recent years revised standards for five of the six common pollutants subject to national air quality standards. EPA made the standards more protective because new, peer-reviewed scientific studies showed that existing standards were not adequate to protect public health and the environment.

Status of common pollutant problems in brief

Today, pollution levels in many areas of the United States exceed national air quality standards for at least one of the six common pollutants:

  • Although levels of particle pollution and ground-level ozone pollution are substantially lower than in the past, levels are unhealthy in numerous areas of the country. Both pollutants are the result of emissions from diverse sources, and travel long distances and across state lines.

    An extensive body of scientific evidence shows that long- and short-term exposures to fine particle pollution, also known as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), can cause premature death and harmful effects on the cardiovascular system, including increased hospital admissions and emergency department visits for heart attacks and strokes. Scientific evidence also links PM to harmful respiratory effects, including asthma attacks.

    Ozone can increase the frequency of asthma attacks, cause shortness of breath, aggravate lung diseases, and cause permanent damage to lungs through long-term exposure. Elevated ozone levels are linked to increases in hospitalizations, emergency room visits and premature death.

    Both pollutants cause environmental damage, and fine particles impair visibility.

    Fine particles can be emitted directly or formed from gaseous emissions including sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides. Ozone, a colorless gas, is created when emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react.

  • For unhealthy peak levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, EPA is working with states and others on ways to determine where and how often unhealthy peaks occur. Both pollutants cause multiple adverse respiratory effects including increased asthma symptoms, and are associated with increased emergency department visits and hospital admissions for respiratory illness. Both pollutants cause environmental damage, and are byproducts of fossil fuel combustion.
  • Airborne lead pollution, a nationwide health concern before EPA phased out lead in motor vehicle gasoline under Clean Air Act authority, now meets national air quality standards except in areas near certain large lead-emitting industrial facilities. Lead is associated with neurological effects in children, such as behavioral problems, learning deficits and lowered IQ, and high blood pressure and heart disease in adults.
  • The entire nation meets the carbon monoxide air quality standards, largely because of emissions standards for new motor vehicles under the Clean Air Act……https://www.epa.gov/clean-air-act-overview/air-pollution-current-and-future-challenges