What Needs to be Done

Many major challenges require the Administration, working through the EPA, and Congress to take steps to protect the health of the public. Here are a few that the American Lung Associationcalls for to improve the air we all breathe, starting with cleaning up tailpipes and smokestacks.

Clean up harmful emissions from tailpipes.

Clean up harmful emissions from smokestacks.

Reduce emissions of wood smoke.

Improve the air pollution monitoring network.

Adopt an ozone standard that follows the law and protects health.

Protect the Clean Air Act.

What you can do.

Clean up harmful emissions from tailpipes.

  • Gasoline, cars, light trucks and SUVs. The EPA needs to set new pollution standards for cars, light trucks, SUVs and reduced sulfur in gasoline to reduce nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and particle pollution emissions. People who live or work near highways or busy roads bear a disproportionate health burden from air pollution. Cleaner gasoline will reduce pollution from every car on the road, reducing emissions as if we suddenly removed 33 million cars from the road. Cleaner vehicles will help reduce this impact for all, but especially those who live closest to the traffic. Learn more about this in the American Lung Association report, “A Penny for Prevention: The Case for Cleaner Gasoline and Vehicle Standards.” Send a message to the President today telling him that you want cleaner gasoline and vehicles.
  • Dirty diesel vehicles and heavy equipment. Rules the EPA put in effect over the past several years mean that new diesel vehicles and equipment must be much cleaner. Still, the vast majority of diesel trucks, buses, and heavy equipment (such as bulldozers) will likely be in use for thousands more miles, spewing dangerous diesel exhaust into communities and neighborhoods. The good news is that affordable technology exists to cut emissions by 90 percent. Congress needs to fund the EPA’s diesel cleanup (“retrofit”) program. Congress should also require that clean diesel equipment be used in federally-funded construction programs.

Clean up harmful emissions from smokestacks. 

  • Toxic pollution. Coal-fired power plants remain among the largest contributors to particulate pollution, ozone, mercury, and climate change. Their pollution blows across state lines into states hundreds of miles away.  They produce 84 known hazardous air pollutants, including arsenic, mercury, dioxins, formaldehyde and hydrogen chloride, as shown in the Lung Association report Toxic Air: The Case for Cleaning Up Coal-fired Power Plants. These smokestacks need cleaning up.
  • Carbon pollution. Power plants are the largest stationary source of greenhouse gases in the United States. Energy production accounts for 86 percent of total 2009 greenhouse gas emissions, and the electric sector represents 39 percent of all energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. 1  In 2012, the EPA proposed the first ever limits on carbon pollution from new power plants. Now the EPA needs to finish the job and issue strong final standards for carbon pollution from new and existing plants.
  • Transported ozone and particle pollution. In 2011, the EPA set tough new limits on ozone and particle pollution that could blow across state lines and add unhealthy air downwind.  That same year the EPA also, for the first time, set national limits on the toxic pollutants these power plants can emit. However, these standards have been blocked in the courts. The Lung Association has taken legal steps to defend the EPA’s efforts. The EPA and the states must move forward with actions to clean these plants up. 

Reduce emissions of wood smoke.

  • Residential wood burning devices, including as outdoor wood boilers and stoves, are the largest residential source of particle pollution.  Emissions harmful air pollutants from wood burning devices have worsened air quality and public health in many cities, such as Fairbanks and Salt Lake City. These devices could have significant impacts on their owners and immediate neighbors. The U.S. Census reports that nearly two percent of all U.S. households use wood as a primary heat source.2  In 2006, one study estimated that approximately 14 to 17 million such devices were then in use in the United States.3 
  • Besides particle pollution, wood burning also produces carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and even toxic air pollution. Studies have found that wood smoke leads to coughing and shortness of breath, decreases in lung function, and aggravated asthma and may even cause cancer.4
  • The EPA has not updated national standards for these devices since 1988. Improved technologies in use today can limit harmful emissions from wood burning devices. The EPA needs to update the standards to reflect this new technology. All wood-burning devices can burn cleaner to reduce impacts on public health.
  • Emissions from outdoor wood boilers used to heat residences also need to be cleaned up. As their use increases, the EPA is considering its options to regulate outdoor wood boiler emissions. However, the agency has yet to issue a proposal, originally scheduled for summer 2011 with final rules set for summer 2012. The EPA needs to adopt a standard to limit emissions from these devices to avoid the patchwork of state regulations currently in place.

Improve the air pollution monitoring network.The grades in this report come from information from the nationwide air

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*But, they are located in only about 900 of the 3,068 counties in the U.S.

pollution monitoring network. That network forms the public health infrastructure for air pollution. States and local governments use monitors to accurately measure the amount of air pollution in the community.  
  • Less than one-third of all counties have ozone or particle pollution monitors, seriously limiting the ability to adequately detect and track the levels of harmful air pollution.
  • Coverage is especially limited near major highways, where people likely breathe higher levels of air pollution.  The EPA needs to expand the monitoring network to include comprehensive coverage in areas near major roads and highways.  These monitors are needed to measure the highest levels of exposures air pollution related to traffic. 
  • Unfortunately, funds for existing air pollution monitors have been cut across the nation. These resources may be cut further unless Congress and the White House resolve to protect the health of the nation from air pollution.

Adopt an ozone standard that follows the law and protects health.

  • National air quality standards are the official limits that drive the cleanup of air pollution around the nation. The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA set national air quality standards based on the need to protect public health “with an adequate margin of safety.”  In 2001, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that protecting health was the only basis for the standards.  The Clean Air Act also requires that the EPA review the standards every five years to make sure that the standards are based on the most current science. 
  • A federal court ruled in March, 2013 that the existing standards for ozone, set in 2008, are out-of-date and fail to adequately protect public health.  The American Lung Association filed action challenging the standards set by the Bush Administration in 2008, and resumed the legal battle following the Obama Administration’s decision in 2011 to ignore the overwhelming scientific research and the opinion of experts that much stronger standards were needed.    Now, the EPA has a second chance in December 2013, when it must propose a new standard under the regular review cycle.
  • The EPA estimated that setting the standard for ozone to 60 ppb would save 4,000 to 12,000 lives and prevent 21,000 hospitalizations, 58,000 asthma attacks, 5,300 heart attacks, and result in 2.5 million fewer school and work days lost each year. The lower ozone levels would yield $35 billion to $100 billion in health and economic benefits by 2020.5

Protect the Clean Air Act.
The continued improvement shown in the State of the Air report is possible because of the Clean Air Act, the nation’s strong public health law that the U.S. Congress passed over 40 years ago.   The Act requires that the EPA and each state take steps to clean up the air.  Some members of Congress are proposing changes to the Clean Air Act that could dismantle progress made in the last 40 years. We must keep that law strong to continue to protect public health.

What you can do

Individual citizens can do a great deal to help reduce air pollution outdoors as well. Simple but effective ways include –

  • Tell the President to set tighter standards for gasoline and stricter tailpipe pollution standards for cars, trucks and SUVs.  The EPA also needs to set tighter standards for ozone.
  • Send a message to Congress. Urge them to support cleaner, healthier air and oppose measures to block or delay the cleanup of air pollution. They should support and protect the Clean Air Act.
  • Share your story. Do you or any member of your family have a personal reason to want healthier, cleaner air? how healthy air affects you.
  • Drive less.  Combine trips, walk, bike, carpool or vanpool, and use buses, subways or other alternatives to driving. Vehicle emissions are a major source of air pollution. Support community plans that provide ways to get around that don’t require a car, such as more sidewalks, bike trails and transit systems.
  • Use less electricity. Turn out the lights and use energy-efficient appliances. Generating electricity is one of the biggest sources of pollution, particularly in the eastern United States.
  • Don’t burn wood or trash. Burning firewood and trash are among the largest sources of particles in many parts of the country. If you must use a fireplace or stove for heat, convert your woodstoves to natural gas, which has far fewer polluting emissions. Compost and recycle as much as possible and dispose of other waste properly; don’t burn it. Support efforts in your community to ban outdoor burning of construction and yard wastes. Avoid the use of outdoor hydronic heaters, also called outdoor wood boilers, which are frequently much more polluting than woodstoves.
  • Make sure your local school system requires clean school buses, which includes replacing or retrofitting old school buses with filters and other equipment to reduce emissions. Make sure your local schools don’t idle their buses, a step that can immediately reduce emissions.
  • Get involved. Participate in your community’s review of its air pollution plans and support state and local efforts to clean up air pollution. To find your local air pollution control agency, go to www.4cleanair.org.


1U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2009. Washington, DC: U.S. EPA, 2011. EPA 430-R-11-005.

2U.S. Census Bureau. American Housing Survey for the United States. 2011. Available at www.census.gov/housing/ahs11/national2011.xls

3Johnson PRS. In-Field Ambient Fine Particle Monitoring of an Outdoor Wood Boiler: Public Health Concerns. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment. 2006; 12: 1153–1170.

4Naeher LP, Brauer M, Lipsett M, Zelikoff JT, Simpson CD, Koenig JQ, Smith KR. Woodsmoke Health Effects: A Review. Inhalation Toxicology. 2007; 19:67-106. Bølling AK, Pagels J, Yttri KE, Barregard L, Sallsten G, Schwarze PE, Boman C. Health effects of residential wood smoke particles: the importance of combustion conditions and physicochemical particle properties. Particle and Fibre Toxicology. 2009; 6: 29.

5U.S. EPA. 2010. Summary of the updated Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) for the Reconsideration of the 2008 Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS).  Available at http://www.epa.gov/ttn/ecas/regdata/RIAs/s1-supplemental_analysis_summary11-5-09.pdf .