What is the Clean Air Act?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

Car emissions contribute to air pollution.
Car emissions contribute to air pollution.

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.

Today, some factories are required to install biofiltration systems to reduce air pollution.
Today, some factories are required to install biofiltration systems to reduce air pollution.

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.

The Clean Air Act of 1963 mostly adresses industrial pollutants.
The Clean Air Act of 1963 mostly adresses industrial pollutants.

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.

At the height of the Industrial Revolution, England's River Thames ran black.
At the height of the Industrial Revolution, England's River Thames ran black.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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I live in the southwest, and I praise the EPA regulations on the Clean Air Act. I have a miserable time when there is poor air quality and the biggest polluter in the country (Texas) is a neighboring state. Rick Perry is going against the grain again by trying to stall enforcement of provisions laws that would make Texas' dirtiest companies clean up their emissions profile.

I understand it would make energy cost a little more, but I do not see how a state that I do not even reside in should be able to freely pump pollutants into my state. I would rather pay a fraction of a cent more per gallon of fuel than choke on Texas' exhaust. It is worth the savings in Health care costs and the price of buying the most expensive filters to keep my indoor air quality up to par. I am glad that the EPA is taking over the Texas emission program.


@ GiraffeEars- Murkowski’s attempted changes to the clean air act in 2010 were an utter and complete failure. For those who don't know, her amendment would have stripped the EPAs authority to enforce emissions controls on some of the biggest polluters by rejecting the GHG endangerment finding that was supposed to be released during the bush presidency. This report was commissioned by the Bush administration to determine whether anthropogenic global warming was an endangerment to public health and safety. The same administration then turned around and blocked its release to protect oil and coal companies that would have had to upgrade their plants and equipment to comply.

Although the resolution did not pass, Senator Rockefeller from West Virginia (Another Coal Stronghold) wants to introduce a similar amendment that will delay EPA control over emissions enforcement for at least two years. What I don't get is everyone in the coal industry is praising "clean" coal, but their special interest groups are fighting tooth and nail to reject regulations that would make the transition to "clean" coal.


Did Senator Murkowski ever succeed in her attempt to block the EPA from releasing that long overdue global warming report? I read about it when it was going on, but I never heard anything about it after it was supposed to go to vote. Have there been any changes made to the clean air act in 2009 or 2010?

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