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How Clean is the Clean Air Act?

November 14, 2011 By Mark Riegel, Macalester College

Today we present another installment of Minnesota 2020’s series focusing on environmental policy issues. It’s part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

Take a deep breath. Then slowly breathe out. Now take another breath. By the end of today you will have repeated this process thousands of times. Now just imagine if every breath you took today possibly jeopardized your health. How discomforting is that thought?

In early September, President Barack Obama had the option but declined to strengthen the Clean Air Act's protections against smog. Under the current Clean Air Act smog pollution is regulated at 75 parts per billion, which the Bush administration established in 2008



Obama’s decision blatantly ignored the recommendation of a newly released Environmental Protection Agency report strongly suggesting the acceptable level of pollution be changed to somewhere between 60-70 parts per billion, to limit health risks from smog.

Smog forms when emission from vehicles, industry, and chemical processes react with sunlight chemically at ground level. It is most concentrated in dense urban areas and causes the visible haze that is a common feature of cities today.

Smog even impacts areas with relatively low ground pollution such as the Twin Cities. There were 10 days this past June where the air quality determined by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was listed as only moderately acceptable. Furthermore, there was one day in June where the air quality reached a level that was unhealthy for sensitive groups such as children with asthma or people with lung disease.

Smog is a dangerous pollutant that causes adverse health effects in the American population even at current regulation levels. The EPA’s recently released report listed a multitude of these health impacts. A few of the health effects caused by current smog levels detailed in the report included inflammation and damage of lung airways, more frequent asthma attacks and respiratory infections, and aggravation of lung diseases. These detrimental effects were then found to lead to an increase in hospital and doctor visits, more frequent school and work absences, and premature death in people with heart and lung disease.

Even more disconcerting is the fact that the EPA found that the groups of people most at risk for these health problems are children and the elderly. Children are especially at risk because their lungs are still developing and repeated exposure to high smog concentrations can lead to permanent lung damage. Meanwhile the elderly are a sensitive group because of their limited lung capacity.

It seems illogical to not implement stronger pollution regulation in light of these serious public health concerns. However, Obama, under heavy pressure due to the state of our fragile economy, feared that changing the pollution regulations would endanger jobs. Stronger regulation was viewed as a possible threat to both industry and economic growth.

However, the choice between protecting the economy and protecting the environment is not a black and white issue. Protecting the environment should not be seen as in opposition to improving the economy.

The economy and protecting jobs is incredibly important. But so is the health of Americans. President Obama placed the economy’s health before Americans’, and in doing so put the two issues in opposition, which is contrary to his idea that we can have a health economy and healthy society.

Obama should have enacted the suggested regulation and then worked with industry to achieve the EPA recommended smog levels in a way that would not jeopardize the economy and jobs. It need not have been a choice between the health of Americans and the economy.

Unfortunately it won’t be until 2013 that the Clean Air Act smog level regulations will be examined again. In the absence of executive action, we can work to reduce emissions individually by riding a bike, walking, or taking public transit.

Those are obvious actions, but there’s even more we can do more, especially because there is no guarantee that federal action will reduce future acceptable pollution levels.

For example, one could support local grassroots organizations aimed at combating pollution within the Twin Cities and beyond, such as MN350 and Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, which advances “racial, economic and environmental justice in growth and development patterns in the Twin Cities region.”

There are so many opportunities out there for people interested in protecting our environmental health. Now imagine if everyone made a commitment to improving America’s air quality. I know we would all breathe a little easier on that day!

Mark Riegel is a sophomore majoring in environmental studies at Macalester College. He’s also a cross country runner

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  • nancy hone says:

    November 15, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Hi mark
    You might want to know about Neighbors Against the Burner
    in your neighborhood. We have been opposing the 21 percent
    expansion of the downtown minneapolis (HERC)  garbage burner that sits smack dab next door to the new Twins Stadium for two and and half years. We stopped a garbage burner in your extended neighborhood at 280 and 94 that your public officials dearly wanted. We very much appreciate you writing this article and hope that you and other students can help take action against these atrocities in the name of future generations. Cleaning up our air and water and land and food supply is more of an emergency than people seem to think.Keep up the good work Mark.
    Nancy Hone
    Neighbors Against the Burner