There are actually several Clean Air Act versions, with the earliest in the United States called the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955. Quite a bit of historical precedent exists for governments attempting to create better and healthier air, and these long predate our understanding of pollutants at present. People in England, for instance, were won't to complain of the poor “air” in England, and there was a time during the height of England’s Industrial Revolution when the Thames River ran black, and the air quality was so poor, that combined with fog, people would become covered in black soot when they entered certain parts of London. America was slightly behind on the Industrial Revolution, but not by far, and especially in urban areas that were crammed with people and factories, clean air was very hard to find.
The earliest Clean Air Act, the 1955 Act, attempted to address air pollution. The Air Pollution Control Act didn’t do much to actually control pollution, but instead recognized it as a problem that needed to be studied. About five million dollars a year was set aside for the Public Health Service to study how pollution affected the people and environment, and what efforts might be taken to stop it.
In 1960, this act was amended by being given a four year extension to continue research. In 1962, another amendment involved including the office of the US Surgeon General to evaluate specifically the health impact of air pollution on the human population. These studies at least helped the US government become aware of the growing problem of air pollution, which in turn empowered them to create the Clean Air Act of 1963.
This 1963 act set standards for pollution emissions, most particularly from sources that were stationary. It addressed pollutants created by large factories like steel mills and power plants, but it largely ignored the pollution created by things like cars and airplanes. The Clean Air Act of 1963 did set timelines for stationary sources to comply with emissions standards, and several amendments to the act addressed giving companies specific timelines for complying with the act. The 1963 act also gave many different local and federal agencies regulatory power over companies that were not compliant. The last few amendments began to address the issue of pollution caused by vehicles and lead to a complete rewriting of the act and the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1970.
In the 1970 version standards for creating better air quality became stricter, and guidelines for acceptable levels of emissions shrunk. Both state and federal government agencies had certain powers to address causes of pollution. As with the previous two acts, more money was granted to continue research. A number of amendments again addressed timelines for compliance. These amendments largely ended in the 1980s under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan.
In the late 1980s, President George H.W. Bush proposed new changes, specifically to address toxic air, urban air pollution, and acid rain. This led to a revised act in 1990, which set specific limits of allowable air pollution at any time and in any part of the US. Though states may have ability to enforce such standards, or make them even stronger, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is especially empowered to prosecute stationary companies in violation of the act and to set the standards of allowable pollutants. Though the Clean Air Act has many elements, it can be summed into three main goals:
- To reduce outdoor air pollutants
- To eliminate practices using chemicals or production processes that are hazardous to the ozone layer
- To reduce or eliminate those chemical emissions or air pollutants that are potentially toxic to humans and animals.
As with every other version of the act, amendments continue to be made, especially as the understanding of how pollutants are creating long term and short-term problems increases. Specifically, guidelines for vehicle emissions continue to be changed to hopefully create an environment with cleaner ambient air, and with less potential toxins. Environmentalists still criticize these acts, and suggest that they are not far reaching enough, by any means, to save the planet from what they consider impending global warming.