Air quality: Cleaner despite stricter standards

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It's that time of year, as the air gets stagnant, air quality alerts are on the rise. Even as you hear the alerts, you can rest assured the air is getting cleaner every year.

When you think summer in Richmond, you may think smog. It's a dirty byproduct of our car culture. But each year we make progress. A breath of fresh air is easier to find than it used to be.

It started with the Clean Air Act of 1970. Acid rain was a major threat to the environment. Smog, dirty factories, and dark smoke pouring from smokestacks were taken as a given -- and signs of economic success.

But after 1970 things changed. When President Richard Nixon signed the bill it was a first: mandatory federal limits were placed air pollution for the first time. Including: carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and ozone.

The air started to get cleaner, but more needed to be done. In 1990, the Clean Air Act was updated and pollutants were even more tightly restricted. That's when the EPA says that's the big changes came: Since 1990, the agency says air pollutants have decreased by more than 41 percent.

And now, nearly the entire country is meeting air quality targets set years ago for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.

Cars and trucks are cleaner burning than ever. Same thing for power plants. The air is so much cleaner, the EPA had to make pollution limits more stringent several times since the law was enacted.

Ozone is a good example: it's a chemical that's formed when the hot summer sun "cooks" pollution and it's a main ingredient in smog.

In the late 1990s, if ozone level hit 125 parts per million, that would mean a Code Orange day. That used to happen 15-20 times per summer.

But standards have been tightened. Now, if levels hit 75 ppm, it's a violation. It's a sign that the air is getting cleaner and cleaner.

And the EPA isn't stopping there -- there may be another update to the criteria coming in the next month.

Even thought we'll get more air quality "action" days, you can rest assured the air you breathe is getting cleaner.

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