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Air Pollution: Current and Future Challenges

Indoor air pollution, which arises from a variety of causes, also can cause health problems. For more information on indoor air pollution, which is not regulated under the Clean Air Act, see EPA’s indoor air web site.

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.

In Brief: How EPA is working with states and tribes to limit common air pollutants

  • EPA’s air research provides the critical science to develop and implement outdoor air regulations under the Clean Air Act and puts new tools and information in the hands of air quality managers and regulators to protect the air we breathe.
  • To reflect new scientific studies, EPA revised the national air quality standards for fine particles(2006, 2012), ground-level ozone (2008, 2015), sulfur dioxide (2010), nitrogen dioxide (2010), and lead (2008). After the scientific review, EPA decided to retain the existing standards for carbon monoxide.  EPA strengthened the air quality standards for ground-level ozone in October 2015 based on extensive scientific evidence about ozone’s effects.
  • EPA has designated areas meeting and not meeting the air quality standards for the 2006 and 2012 PM standards and the 2008 ozone standard, and has completed an initial round of area designations for the 2010 sulfur dioxide standard. The agency also issues rules or guidance for state implementation of the various ambient air quality standards – for example, in March 2015, proposing requirements for implementation of current and future fine particle standards. EPA is working with states to improve data to support implementation of the 2010 sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide standards.
  • For areas not meeting the national air quality standards, states are required to adopt state implementation plan revisions containing measures needed to meet the standards as expeditiously as practicable and within time periods specified in the Clean Air Act (except that plans are not required for areas with “marginal” ozone levels).
  • EPA is helping states to meet standards for common pollutants by issuing federal emissions standards for new motor vehicles and non-road engines, national emissions standards for categories of new industrial equipment (e.g., power plants, industrial boilers, cement manufacturing, secondary lead smelting), and technical and policy guidance for state implementation plans. EPA and state rules already on the books are projected to help 99 percent of counties with monitors meet the revised fine particle standards by 2020. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for new and existing power plants issued in December 2011 are achieving reductions in fine particles and sulfur dioxide as a byproduct of controls required to cut toxic emissions.
  • Vehicles and their fuels continue to be an important contributor to air pollution. EPA in 2014 issued standards commonly known as Tier 3, which consider the vehicle and its fuel as an integrated system, setting new vehicle emissions standards and a new gasoline sulfur standard beginning in 2017. The vehicle emissions standards will reduce both tailpipe and evaporative emissions from passenger cars, light-duty trucks, medium-duty passenger vehicles, and some heavy-duty vehicles. The gasoline sulfur standard will enable more stringent vehicle emissions standards and will make emissions control systems more effective. These rules further cut the sulfur content of gasoline. Cleaner fuel makes possible the use of new vehicle emission control technologies and cuts harmful emissions in existing vehicles. The standards will reduce atmospheric levels of ozone, fine particles, nitrogen dioxide, and toxic pollution.



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