EPA Report Stresses Need for Improved Air Quality

EPA's annual report showed overall improvements in the nation's air quality but emphasized that 62 million Americans still live in areas with unhealthy air.

EPA released its annual air quality trends report showing that air quality nationally continues to improve. However, in 1999, 62 million Americans lived in areas that had unhealthy air for at least one of six major pollutants.

"Americans have made significant progress in improving our air quality and protecting public health, but real challenges still remain," said EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner. "That is why we have taken major actions to reduce air pollution that will have benefits for decades to come. Those actions include requiring the cleanest cars, SUVs, trucks and gasoline ever produced, and controlling windblown smog through the first-ever strategy designed to protect air quality throughout much of the Eastern United States."

Overall, national air quality levels have shown improvements for six major pollutants since the 1970 Clean Air Act was signed into law.

Those pollutants are smog, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, or soot.

Yet air pollution remains a problem in many areas, including rural areas and some national parks, which have experienced high smog levels resulting from pollution emitted many miles away.

The most recent 10 year period shows the following nationwide improvements in air quality (1990-99):

  • Carbon monoxide concentrations decreased 36 percent;
  • Lead concentrations decreased 36 percent;
  • Nitrogen dioxide concentrations decreased 10 percent;
  • Smog concentrations decreased 4 percent;
  • Particulate matter concentrations decreased 18 percent; and
  • Sulfur dioxide concentrations decreased 36 percent.

Air pollution can cause a variety of health problems, from burning eyes and irritated throats, to birth defects, brain and nerve damage to long-term damage to the lungs.

Ozone, for example, can irritate the respiratory system, aggravate asthma and inflame the lining of the lung.

And a recent study showed a connection between particulate matter in the air and both mortality and hospitalizations in major U.S. cities.

The report released by EPA is a summary version of the longer "Air Quality Trends" report the agency has issued in the past. Additional detailed information is available at www.epa.gov/airtrends.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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