Auto Emission Testing and Standards

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AUTO EMISSION TESTING AND STANDARDS. In 1967, the United States congress passed the Air Quality Act, authorizing the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to establish different air quality regions in the United States. Most of the responsibility for setting air quality standards and enforcing them was left to the individual states. Believing the act lacked enough punch for enforcement, Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, which set deadlines for cleaning pollutants out of America's air. In response, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on 2 December 1970.

At the time, the EPA initiated research into testing automobile emissions for pollutants, but its powers to enforce regulations were weak. In 1973, Congress passed amendments to the Clean Air Act mandating the use of catalytic converters and the testing of converters every 50,000 miles by 1975. General Motors surprised almost everyone by having catalytic converters installed in nearly all of its new cars within one year. In 1974, Honda responded with the Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion (CVCC) engine, which burned fuel so cleanly it met emission standards without a catalytic converter.

The long battle to eliminate lead from gasoline was begun in 1973, after numerous scientific reports linking even small amounts of lead in the atmosphere to poor health, especially for children. At the time, 200,000 tons of lead were used in gasoline per year. The EPA mandated 1.7 grams per gallon by July 1, 1975, 1.2 grams by July 1, 1976, 0.9 grams by July 1, 1977, and 0.6 grams by July 1, 1978. The EPA further ordered that at least one grade of gasoline had to be lead free to protect catalytic converters. Small refineries were given an extension to 1 July 1977 to meet the lead-free gasoline requirement. In 1975, the EPA required all foreign-made automobiles to have catalytic converters.

Congress' Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977 weakened EPA standards on automobile emissions, especially for lead. New Jersey and California responded by creating their own stricter regulations for emissions. In 1978, the EPA again tried to set nationwide regulations to control lead emissions, mandating all grades of gasoline be lead free by October 1979. Gasoline manufacturers complained that the rules were too strict, and Congress weakened automobile emissions standards, even though environmental groups sued the EPA to enforce the stricter standards. In 1985, the EPA passed stricter emission standards, including a stricter standard for lead. Before the new standard, lead content was allowed to be 1.1 grams per gallon; the new regulation set a maximum of 0.1 grams per gallon and a deadline to meet the standard of 1 January 1986. This was an urgent matter, because lead ruined the ability of catalytic converters to control the emissions of ozone, nitrogen oxides, and soot.

In November 1990, Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, requiring lead-free gasoline and an end to ozone and soot emissions. On 29 January 1996, the EPA announced revisions of its emission regulations in light of the Congressional mandate, declaring the use of leaded gasoline against the law. On 16 November 1999, the EPA issued a report claiming that the reduction in automobile pollution would save 23,000 lives by 2010 and had already saved the American economy four times as much as it has spent on low-emission engines and catalytic converters.


Harrington, Winston, Margaret A. Walls, and Virginia D. McConnell. "Using Economic Incentives to Reduce Auto Pollution." Issues in Science and Technology 11, no. 2 (Winter 1994): 26–32.

Ingrassia, Paul, and Joseph B. White. Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Merline, John. "Buy a New Car, Clean the Air." Consumers' Re-search Magazine 83, no. 8 (August 2000): 10.

Walsh, Campion. "The Regulatory Toll." Wall Street Journal (13 September 1999): R9.

Kirk H.Beetz

See alsoAir Pollution ; Clean Air Act ; Environmental Protection Agency ; Ozone Depletion .