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In this lesson, we look at the efforts made to reduce air pollution from industrial and vehicular sources. We discuss the Clean Air Act, the EPA, and the technological advances over the last 50 years.

Back in the Days of Smog

In the middle of the 20th century, there was a boom in economic growth along with population growth. People began to move to the suburbs, and it seemed everyone was buying a family car. The increase in automobile ownership coincided with a rapid expansion of the highway systems around the country. Basically, factories were building more goods and pumping lots of chemicals into the air. At the same time, more people were on the road and driving farther distances every day.

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This all added up to making the air thick with a variety of chemicals that weren’t good for anyone to breathe in those quantities.

Boston in 1973 versus Boston in 2012

Clean Air Act of 1970

By 1970, the American people were fed up with the horrible quality of their air and with the negative effects it had on their health. That year, Congress passed the Clean Air Act and formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The act gave the EPA legal authority and the responsibility to set regulations aimed at reducing air pollution from stationary sources, referring to factories and power plants, and mobile sources, which include cars, trucks, planes, boats, and trains.

Combating Automotive Pollution

The EPA worked on reducing automotive pollution in two ways.

  1. It required car manufacturers to design and implement technology to trap the pollutants before they could be released into the air.
  2. It worked to reduce the amount of lead and sulfur in fuel with the goal of eliminating those impurities entirely.
Cars used to be one of the largest sources of air pollution.


Catalytic Converter

The catalytic converter is one of the most influential and beneficial advancements in automotive technology when it comes to reducing air pollution. This small chamber is attached to the exhaust system and contains a ceramic network coated with various precious metals like platinum. As the automotive exhaust passes through the catalytic converter, the metals interact with the polluted air to change its chemical structure. The resulting emissions contain 98 to 99 percent fewer pollutants today than they did in the 1960s before catalytic converters were introduced.

Clean and Alternative Fuels

One of the first efforts by the EPA to reduce automotive pollution was to begin phasing out lead in gasoline.

It gradually decreased the level of lead in fuels over 25 years, from 1970 to 1995. Today, we have vehicles, like electric cars, with alternative fuels. With gas-electric hybrids and gas engines with increased efficiency, pollution generated per mile of driving is a microscopic amount in comparison to engines of the past.

Industrial Air Pollution

Tackling industrial air pollution required a greater effort because of the array of different industries, such as power plants, chemical plants, agriculture, mining, and many others. The methods of tackling these types of pollution are quite varied, including regulated limits on emissions, land-use regulations and zoning, and a combination of incentives and penalties.

Today, most of the exhaust pictured is free of pollutants.
Technological Advancements

To aid the EPA’s continued efforts to reduce pollution, it either requires or encourages industrial facilities to incorporate a number of new technological innovations. Where once power plants and factories belched smoke and toxic steam into the air, stacks are now emitting mostly steam with a much smaller proportion of certain chemicals like sulfur, carbon, and nitrogen oxide.Plants are now using a variety of new valve seals that are infinitely more efficient as well as detection equipment to alert workers if there is a leak.

What makes the most difference, however, are the scrubbers. Scrubbers refer to a number of methods used literally to scrub the particles of pollutants from the air; the most common method uses condensation or a spray to trap fine particles of pollution.

Regulatory and Incentive-Based Approaches

Early on, the EPA worked with the traditional approach of setting regulation, requiring new plants to incorporate specific technologies and set hard limits on the number of pollutants emitted. This included limiting types of land use to prevent concentrations of polluting industry in one area. The EPA also restricted the building of industrial facilities in areas where meteorological conditions, such as wind direction and speed, would direct pollution into protected areas like nature preserves.In more recent years, the EPA and Congress approved market-based policies to use economic approaches to encourage innovation in pollution reduction technology and letting companies earn benefits from complying with regulations.

These include subsidies that give grants and interest-free loans to companies working to implement pollution reduction and issuing of permits for the number of pollutants released. Companies producing fewer pollutants than their permits can sell the extra units on the open market.Another approach is to tax or charge companies a deposit for potential pollutants, which can be refunded if they meet certain reduction goals. Finally, some states use a penalty system in which they charge an emissions tax or fee per unit of pollution released.

Lesson Summary

The Clean Air Act and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 were government efforts to combat the increasing problem of air pollution from mobile sources, like automobiles, and stationary sources, like industrial plants. With automotive pollution, the EPA required new vehicles to have a catalytic converter, a chamber of precious metals added to the exhaust system of a car. The metals reacted with the pollutants to change their chemical makeup.The EPA also began to phase out lead and sulfur in fuels, and eliminated lead altogether by 1995. Industrial pollution required a wider variety of efforts because of the diversity of industrial fields and variety of chemicals.

One of the main technologies used is scrubbers, which use a variety of methods to trap or separate pollution particles from the air released from power and factories.The EPA also used regulations to limit the amount of allowable pollution and control land use. Land-use limits prevented polluting facilities from concentrating in a single area or building upwind from protecting natural sites. The EPA also used market-based systems, like subsidies, for implementing pollution-reducing technologies; issuing quantity permits on pollutants that can be resold; refunding deposits on pollutants; and charging fees per unit of pollution produced.

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