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What Public Health Professionals Need to Know About the Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act has been one of the most successful public health programs in U.S. history.

Industrialization has brought the world incalculable benefits. But the burning of fossil fuels and the production and use of modern chemicals can wreak havoc on our environment and, ultimately, our health. By the mid-20th century, U.S. leaders realized something had to be done. The eventual result? One of the world’s most successful sets of clean air provisions.

The U.S. began regulating air pollutants on a national level in 1955 and significantly increased regulations in 1970 and again in 1990. Known as the Clean Air Act (CAA), these regulations continue to protect air quality in the U.S. to this day. And—as many public health professionals will tell you—they also continue to protect our health.

What Public Health Professionals Need to Know About the Clean Air Act

If you’re considering starting a career in public health, here’s what you need to know about how the CAA works and how it helps.

The Clean Air Act Is Comprehensive

Administered and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the CAA’s role is to limit certain air pollutants. While that may seem straightforward, there are a lot of different ways our air can be polluted, and thus quite a few regulations encapsulated in the CAA. As stated by the EPA, these regulations include:*

  • Reducing outdoor, or ambient, concentrations of air pollutants that cause smog, haze, acid rain, and other problems.
  • Reducing emissions of toxic air pollutants that are known to, or are suspected of, causing cancer or other serious health effects.
  • Phasing out the production and use of chemicals that destroy stratospheric ozone.

The most common air pollutants are particle pollution (particulate matter like soot and airborne droplets released during chemical reactions), ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead. To keep all of these and other air pollutants at a minimum, the CAA regulates emissions of pollutants through direct restrictions and careful permitting, and requires government bodies to take action if an area’s air quality falls below certain guidelines.

The Clean Air Act Is Designed to Help Our Health

Air pollution kills. Every year, over 5.5 million people worldwide die of outdoor and/or indoor air pollution. The CAA’s most important mission is to prevent air pollution-related deaths and decrease air-pollution-related ailments. The CAA seeks to prevent/decrease incidences of such conditions as:

  • Asthma caused by particle pollution
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) caused by exposure to vehicle exhaust and ground-level ozone
  • Cardiovascular disease caused by the heart overworking to pump oxygen whenever pollutants make it hard to breathe
  • Lung and other cancers caused by exposure to airborne carcinogens
  • Infections that are worsened by ground-level ozone, which can decrease the effectiveness of the body’s immune system
  • Lead poisoning caused by leaded fuels
  • Skin cancer caused by ozone layer depletion
  • Sudden death caused by air that lacks proper oxygenation

The Clean Air Act Is Highly Successful

Since its inception, the CAA has successfully lowered pollutants in our air and improved the overall health of people in the U.S. According to the EPA, the CAA’s achievements include:

  • Preventing more than 160,000 air pollution-related deaths a year
  • Dramatically reducing incidents of air pollution-related asthma, bronchitis, and heart attacks
  • Reducing work days lost due to air pollution-related conditions by over 13,000,000 days a year
  • Preventing over 10 million lead-related lost IQ points in children a year
  • Increasing life expectancy at birth in U.S. cities by approximately seven months 
  • Lowering the aggregate national emissions of the six most common pollutants by 70% from 1970 to 2015
  • Improving air quality across the board from 1970 to 2015, with an 85% improvement in lead concentrations, an 84% improvement in carbon monoxide, a 67% improvement in sulfur dioxide, a 60%
  • improvement in nitrogen dioxide, a 3% improvement in ozone, and a 69% and 37% improvement in coarse and fine particulate matter respectively
  • Eliminating unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide in all 41 areas identified in 1991 to have a problem  

The Clean Air Act Needs Public Health Advocates

If you want to help ensure the CAA remains law and continues to help people in the U.S., consider earning a public health degree such as a BS in Public Health or a Master of Public Health (MPH degree). Both a bachelor’s in public health and a master’s in public health can help you gain the skills you need for jobs in public health that are focused on reducing air pollution.

The good news is, you can earn a bachelor’s in public health or a Master of Public Health at an online university. Why does this matter? Because online learning can give you the convenience you need to be a public health major or complete a public health graduate program without upending your life. An online Bachelor of Science or MPH program can allow you to earn your degree from home—or anywhere else you have Internet access. Plus, online public health degree programs give you the flexibility to attend classes at whatever time of day works best for you, meaning you can earn your bachelor’s in public health or Master of Public Health degree while working full time.

Online education can give you access to some of the best BS in Public Health programs and the best MPH programs around. And that, in turn, can put you on the path to becoming a leader in improving public health through reducing air pollution.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a BS in Public Health and a Master of Public Health online . Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

* United States Environmental Protection Agency, The Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act, on the internet as a PDF at

† J. Worland, Air Pollution Kills More Than 5 Million People Around the World Every Year, Time, on the internet at

‡ United States Environmental Protection Agency, Progress Cleaning the Air and Improving People's Health, on the internet at

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,