The Health Benefits of the Acid Rain Program

Growing up in the early 1990s, I heard a lot of buzz about acid rain and its damaging effects on our forests and aquatic environments. It wasn’t until I started interning in the Clean Air Markets Division of EPA that I began to investigate how sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), the emissions that cause acid rain, could also harm my health.

Since the Acid Rain Program began requiring SO2 and NOx reductions from power plants, the drop in emissions has improved air quality around the country, preventing some negative health impacts and leading to a higher quality of life for many Americans.

In fact, the greatest benefits are the 20,000 to 50,000 lives saved per year because of cleaner air and lower pollution levels. SO2 and NOx emissions can lead to the formation of fine particle pollution and smog, also called ground level ozone. Smog and particle pollution have been linked to health problems including aggravation of asthma and increased risk of premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

Even though I’m relatively healthy and am not considered particularly sensitive to these effects, I can still feel the impact when I’m playing or working outdoors. I spend a lot of time outside with my two dogs, Bella and Lucy. I love taking them hiking near the Occoquan River in northern Virginia. Even though I’m not affected by asthma, the hills are a lot harder to climb on bad air days. Fortunately for me (and my dogs), the good air days far outnumber the bad and we don’t have to cut our adventures short because of polluted air.

It’s pretty amazing that a program originally designed to fix the environmental problem of acid rain saves so many lives every year! EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment, and the Acid Rain Program is doing both.

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About the author: Elyse Procopio was an intern in EPA’s Office of Atmospheric Programs. She recently graduated from North Carolina State University with a bachelor’s degree in Natural Resource Management.