Congress Passes the Air Pollution Control Act

Congress passed the Air Pollution Control Act, the first legislation in the United States to help control and prevent air pollution.

Summary of Event

On July 14, 1955, the U.S. Congress enacted the first federal legislation to control air pollution, the Air Pollution Control Act. The objectives of this act included protecting national air resources so as to promote public health and welfare, providing technical and financial assistance to state and local governments by the federal government for air-pollution prevention and control programs, initiating a national research program to prevent and control air pollution, and assisting in the development and operation of air-pollution control programs. This act recognized that, although sources of air pollution were local problems, federal assistance was necessary to develop cooperative air-pollution control programs between state and local governments. In 1955, it was necessary to identify pollution sources, analyze effects of air pollution, and initiate effective legislation and enforcement by government regulatory agencies. [kw]Congress Passes the Air Pollution Control Act (July 14, 1955)
[kw]Air Pollution Control Act, Congress Passes the (July 14, 1955)
[kw]Pollution Control Act, Congress Passes the Air (July 14, 1955)
[kw]Act, Congress Passes the Air Pollution Control (July 14, 1955)
Air Pollution Control Act (1955)
Environmental policy, U.S.;air pollution
Air Pollution Control Act (1955)
Environmental policy, U.S.;air pollution
[g]North America;July 14, 1955: Congress Passes the Air Pollution Control Act[04900]
[g]United States;July 14, 1955: Congress Passes the Air Pollution Control Act[04900]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 14, 1955: Congress Passes the Air Pollution Control Act[04900]
[c]Environmental issues;July 14, 1955: Congress Passes the Air Pollution Control Act[04900]
Kuchel, Thomas H.
Capehart, Homer E.
Hobby, Oveta Culp
McCabe, Louis C.

Enactment of the Air Pollution Control Act was in response to serious health-threatening crises that occurred in the years preceding 1955. These air-pollution crises were the result of increasing urban and industrial development in the United States. In 1860, the United States was a nation of 31.5 million people, 20 percent of whom lived in urban areas. By 1900, the urban population in the United States had risen to more than 30 million, 40 percent of the total population. The trend of increasing urban population coincided with rapid industrial development and its production of smoke and sulfur dioxide. Furthermore, industrial development spawned development of the chemical industry, which increased the amount and type of pollutants emitted from factory smokestacks. Industrial activities in the United States increased to meet military needs during World War II; this caused increased air pollution, which was especially critical in cities such as Los Angeles.

In February, 1945, Los Angeles created the position of director of air pollution control to enforce laws pertaining to control of air pollution, to solicit public cooperation through education, and to obtain technical support to carry out the director’s duties. In 1947, Los Angeles County, which included forty-five separate cities, was designated as an Air Pollution Control District by the California state legislature. This allowed for enforcement of laws and a permit system within the district. Louis C. McCabe was the initial director of the Air Pollution Control District.

The years between 1947 and 1955 saw a number of incidents that directed attention to the serious effects of significant air pollution. One of the most critical events occurred in October, 1948, at Donora, Pennsylvania, a suburb twenty-five miles south of Pittsburgh. Atmospheric conditions were such that a stable air mass settled for several days over western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. A temperature inversion Temperature inversions;Donora, Pennsylvania and fog trapped pollutants, primarily from the zinc works at the American Steel and Wire Company, and created a heavy smog Smog . After four days, about twenty people were dead and nearly six thousand had become ill with symptoms of gasping and chest pains. Hospitals were filled to capacity. This incident made it clear that air pollution was a health hazard that demanded attention.

Problems at Donora were followed by similar episodes of dangerous smog in London, Temperature inversions;London England, during December, 1952. More than four thousand people died as the result of air filled with soot, smoke, and factory emissions. In the following months, more than eight thousand people died of respiratory-related causes that were blamed on the December smog. During October, 1954, a heavy smog that hung over Los Angeles for nine consecutive days resulted in widespread eye irritation. The smog was blamed on excessive motor-vehicle exhaust; in response, police set up roadblocks to check vehicles for excessive emissions.

These serious air-pollution events ignited efforts by Congress to establish the first air-pollution control legislation. Senators Thomas H. Kuchel of California and Homer E. Capehart of Indiana wrote an important letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower on August 5, 1954, imploring the president to establish an interdepartmental committee of federal agencies from health, housing, agriculture, transportation, economy, industry, and research to control smog. This letter was referred to Oveta Culp Hobby, secretary of health, education, and welfare Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, U.S.;pollution (HEW). Hobby responded with a statement of her support for the proposed committee, and she began soliciting representatives from the Departments of Agriculture, the Interior, Commerce, and Defense, in addition to the Atomic Energy Commission and the National Science Foundation.

Another important letter from Kuchel to Eisenhower was written on October 21. In his letter, Kuchel called the president’s attention to the current serious smog emergency in Los Angeles and outlined his ideas on how the U.S. Public Health Service, Bureau of Standards, and Bureau of Mines could contribute their energies to avert a national health problem related to air pollution.

As a consequence of such activism, the Interdepartment Ad Hoc Committee on Community Air Pollution Interdepartment Ad Hoc Committee on Community Air Pollution, U.S. was formed and met initially on November 16. The committee discussed prospective legislation and the principles on which it would be based. A report, The Federal Role in Community Air Pollution Problems, “Federal Role in Community Air Pollution Problems, The” (government report)[Federal Role in Community Air Pollution Problems] was produced by the committee in April, 1955. Work by this committee resulted in meetings between key federal officials and congressional personnel, which concluded in a bill (S. 928) sponsored by Senator Kuchel to amend the Water Pollution Control Act in order to provide for air-pollution control.

In late April, Secretary Hobby answered a request for comments on bill S. 928 with a letter to Senator Dennis Chavez Chavez, Dennis , chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Works. Hobby justified a five-year duration of work and appropriations from this bill, from July 1, 1955, to June 30, 1960, of $5 million per year. The bill called for an Air Pollution Control Advisory Board whose function Hobby believed could be better fulfilled by the ad hoc committee already organized. Bill S. 928 received exclusively favorable testimony for enactment during hearings held by the Senate Committee on Public Works. On July 14, bill S. 928 was enacted as Public Law 159 and was known as the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955.


In the two years following enactment of the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955, significant changes took place in response to air pollution. These were summarized during an address on the review of progress made under the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 by U.S. surgeon general Leroy Burneyk Burneyk, Leroy to the National Conference on Air Pollution National Conference on Air Pollution, U.S. (1958) in November, 1958. Across the United States, people became aware that air pollution was indeed a problem that demanded attention. Clean air could no longer be taken for granted. Eleven states passed initial laws or strengthened existing laws regarding air-pollution control. Statewide air-pollution control statutes were developed for Oregon, Washington, Delaware, New York, and Florida to maintain reasonable air purity.

A National Air Sampling Network National Air Sampling Network, U.S. expanded to include 181 cities and 51 nonurban environments where airborne solid particles and liquid droplet concentrations were monitored. Gas sampling was identified as a necessary and important addition to the network. Research collaboration on air-pollution control and on the health effects of specific pollutants increased dramatically. The Public Health Service Public Health Service, U.S. worked with the Bureau of Mines and the U.S. Weather Bureau to analyze air pollution from motor vehicles. Education on air-pollution control increased. As an example, fourteen universities offered advanced degrees in subjects related to air pollution.

Over the years immediately following 1958, evidence of the first air-pollution legislation resulted in additional emphasis through amendments to the 1955 act and through new legislation. The Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 was amended in 1959 to extend appropriations for four additional years, through June, 1964. Congress mandated cooperation between federal agencies and HEW for air-pollution prevention and control. Another amendment in 1960 included a required report from the surgeon general to Congress with respect to the growing problem of pollution from motor-vehicle exhaust. The 1962 amendment to the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 extended appropriations for an additional two years through June, 1966. This amendment required permanent studies on the air pollution discharged from motor vehicles.

During 1963, the Air Pollution Control Act was replaced by the Clean Air Act Clean Air Act (1963) of 1963. This new act directed that new training programs and research commence, new financial grants to states and municipalities be made, and federal intervention stop interstate air pollution. More explicit authority for air-pollution control was given to HEW. By 1963, most local governments were in favor of and had instituted air-pollution control laws. Chicago, for example, had a budget of $600,000 and a staff of sixty-nine people devoted to air-pollution control.

A typical trend emerged during debate on the Clean Air Act. While state and local governments unanimously supported the bill, industry leaders provided opposition, because pollution control would cost them money. Opposition was led by the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Farm Bureau, the Manufacturing Chemists Association, the National Coal Association, and the American Paper and Pulp Association. Over the years, U.S. industry has spent significantly more money annually on emission-control equipment.

The Clean Air Act of 1963 has been amended several times. Early amendments were made in 1965 and 1966. These amendments included increases in funding. While the original Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 appropriated $5 million per year for air-pollution programs, by 1969 funding increased to $74 million per year.

Since the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 made an initial attempt to control air pollution, legislation has been enacted to respond to new knowledge regarding air pollution or to address recently developed air-pollution problems. Although progress has been made, there is a continual conflict between a desire for clean, healthy air and the cost that industry must pay to limit the emission of pollutants. Pollution;legislation
Air Pollution Control Act (1955)
Environmental policy, U.S.;air pollution

Further Reading

  • Chanlett, Emil T. “Our Air Environment in the Workplace and the Community.” In Environmental Protection. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979. A review of gaseous and particulate air pollutants. Discusses air-sampling methods and instruments and examines standards for control of air pollution. Provides a particularly good section related to sources of air pollution, and explains the harmful health effects on humans and animals. Gives a rationale for management of different kinds of pollutants.
  • Degler, Stanley E., and Sandra C. Bloom. Federal Pollution Control Programs: Water, Air, and Solid Wastes. Washington, D.C.: BNA Books, 1969. A succinct historical overview of legislation for control of air pollution. Provides actual text of the key legislation.
  • DuPuis, E. Melanie, ed. Smoke and Mirrors: The Politics and Culture of Air Pollution. New York: New York University Press, 2004. Explores the issue of “the commons” in the fight for clean air. A cultural, social, and political analysis of the concerns over air-pollution control and regulation.
  • Dworsky, Leonard B., comp. Pollution. New York: Chelsea House, 1971. An excellent, in-depth review of the background and history of water and air pollution. Includes descriptions of early problems, development of legislation to curb pollution, and the impact of legislation on pollution control. This book contains detailed descriptions of the development of air-pollution legislation.
  • Godish, Thad. Air Quality. 4th ed. Boca Raton, Fla.: Lewis, 2004. A textbook on air pollution that also provides a brief history of federal air-pollution legislation.
  • Reitze, Arnold. Air Pollution Control Law: Compliance and Enforcement. Washington, D.C.: Environmental Law Institute, 2001. A guidebook to air-pollution law and legislation. Includes regulation history, information on air-quality urban planning, pollution control, and penalties for polluters.
  • Stradling, David. Smokestacks and Progressives: Environmentalists, Engineers and Air Quality in America, 1881-1951. 1999. New ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Considered a soon-to-be classic in environmental history, this book looks at one of the first environmental movements in the United States—the crusade against coal and other types of smoke that began around 1900.
  • Switzer, Jacqueline Vaughn. Environmental Politics: Domestic and Global Dimensions. 4th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004. A history of the development of environmental policy by the United States and the global implications of such legislation. Includes a brief discussion of the Clean Air Act, which developed from the Air Pollution Control Act, showing how the act is related to the general expansion of the federal role in regulating pollution.
  • VanNijnatten, Debora L., and W. Henry Lambright. North American Smog: Science-Policy Linkages Across Multiple Boundaries. Orono: University of Maine Press, 2001. This pamphlet argues for attacking North American smog on a continental level and discusses the scientific and environmental-policy implications of that position.
  • Wark, K., and Cecil F. Warner. “Federal Legislation and Regulatory Trends.” In Air Pollution: Its Origins and Control. New York: IEP, 1976. General textbook on air-pollution sources and pollution-control methods. Presents legislation enacted in the United States, with helpful interpretive comments. Includes a valuable section on emission standards and compliance.

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