Clean Air: Don't Take It for Granted

In the vast majority of the United States, we take clean air for granted. But this was not always the case and came about only after years of regulatory efforts. Considered from a global perspective, clean air is often a luxury. Some of the worst air pollution is found in Beijing, China; New Delhi, India; and Mexico City, Mexico.

Two significant air pollution disasters in the United States brought attention to air quality. The first was the Donora Smog of 1948, in Donora, PA. On October 27, 1948, Donora suffered a classic air inversion, where sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine and other gases produced by the local steel industry were trapped in the low atmosphere. Twenty Donora residents died and thousands were sickened, with many never recovering from chronic respiratory effects. The second major incident was the London Smog between December 5 and 9, 1952. This was caused by the increased burning of low-grade coal during a cold spell and the introduction of diesel buses, and over 12,000 people died from respiratory distress. In response to these incidents the British Parliament introduced the Clean Air Act of 1956. The US passed the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955, followed by the Clean Air Act of 1963.

Those most vulnerable to air pollution’s respiratory and cardiovascular effects are children and the elderly. Children are more vulnerable because of their small airways and higher respiratory rate than adults. Children exposed to air pollutants develop asthma, pneumonia, and other lower respiratory infections. Regulation to set standards to control air quality and continually monitor air quality are essential in order for children to have an environment in which they can reach and maintain their full potential, free from asthma and respiratory disease.