Emission Control and Air Pollution Module

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What Has Been Done to Control Automobile Emissions?

The Clean Air Act of 1970 set a national goal of clean and healthy air for all. It established the first specific responsibilities for government and private industry to reduce emissions from vehicles, factories, and other pollution sources. In many ways, the far-reaching law has been a great success. The Clean Air Act of 1970 gave EPA broad authority to regulate motor vehicle pollution, and the Agency's emission control policies have become progressively more stringent since the early 1970's.

EPA standards dictate how much pollution autos may emit but automakers decide how to achieve the pollution limits. The emission reductions of the 1970's came about because of fundamental improvements in engine design, plus the addition of charcoal canisters to collect hydrocarbon vapors and exhaust gas recirculation valves to reduce nitrogen oxides. Today's cars, for example, typically emit 70 to 90 percent less pollution over their lifetimes than their 1970 counterparts.

The advent of "first generation" catalytic converters in 1975 significantly reduced hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions. The use of converters provided a huge indirect benefit as well. Because lead inactivates the catalyst, 1975 saw the widespread introduction of unleaded gasoline. This resulted in dramatic reductions in ambient lead levels and alleviated many serious environmental and human health concerns associated with lead pollution.

The next major milestone in vehicle emission control technology came in 1980-81. In response to tighter standards, manufacturers equipped new cars with even more sophisticated emission control systems. These systems generally include a "three-way" catalyst (which converts carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons to carbon dioxide and water, and also helps reduce nitrogen oxides to elemental nitrogen and oxygen), plus an onboard computer and oxygen sensor. This equipment helps optimize the efficiency of the catalytic converter. Despite considerable progress, the overall goal of clean and healthy air continues to elude much of the country. Unhealthy air pollution levels still plague virtually every major city in the United States. This is largely because development and urban sprawl have created new pollution sources and have contributed to a doubling of vehicle travel since 1970. Furthermore, scientists and now the public have become concerned about previously unrecognized environmental threats such as global warming, acid rain and air toxins.

With these issues in mind, Congress and the Administration in 1990 amended and updated the Clean Air Act for the first time since 1977. The 1990 Clean Air Act includes provisions to further control ground-level ozone (urban smog), carbon monoxide, and particulate emissions from diesel engines and to address air toxins and acid rain. These provisions include even tighter tailpipe standards, increased durability, improved control of evaporative emissions, and computerized diagnostic systems that identify malfunctioning emission controls. The goal is to reduce most vehicle-related pollutants by more than 40 percent.


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