History of the Clean Air Act

a guide to clean air legislation past and present

Contributed by James R. Fleming and Bethany R. Knorr at Colby College

Our atmosphere is something we have taken for granted in the past, but, in the last forty years or so, scientists, elected officials, and the general public have begun to realize the effects of pollutants on the air we breathe. It is now recognized that pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and particulates released into the atmosphere as a result of energy generation, industrial development, and increased use of motor vehicles, have serious heath and environmental consequences.

Clean air and air pollution have been public issues for centuries. In 1306 King Edward I of England issued a proclamation banning the use of sea coal in London due to the smoke it caused. Over the next few centuries, additional efforts were made in Great Britain to reduce the amount of smoke in the air. The first attempt to control air pollution in the United States occurred during the industrial revolution. The cities of Chicago and Cincinnati enacted clean air legislation in 1881. Subsequently, other cities, towns, and regions slowly began enforcing their own clean air policies. At the beginning of this century, the Bureau of Mines, under the Department of the Interior, created an Office of Air Pollution to control smoke emissions, but the office was soon eliminated due to inactivity. During the late 1940s serious smog incidents in Los Angeles and Donora, Pennsylvania raised public awareness and concern about this issue once again. In 1955, the government decided that this problem needed to be dealt with on a national level. The Air Pollution Control Act of 1955, was the first in a series of clean air and air quality control acts which are still in effect and continue to be revised and amended.

This site provides background information on clean air legislation and related efforts to enforce a reduction of pollutants in our atmosphere. It also serves as an introduction to a threaded discussion group on this subject that is being conducted by the American Meteorological Society.

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