Revealed: How a little-known pollution rule keeps the air dirty for 21million Americans


More than 21 million Americans are living in counties where air pollution is being kept dirty by a little-known legal loophole.

A provision in the Clean Air Act has allowed local regulators in 70 US counties to claim the air was cleaner than it really was 

The ‘exceptional events rule’ allows pollution caused by ‘natural’ or ‘uncontrollable’ events – including wildfires – to be wiped from the counties’ official records held by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Experts have warned that misuse of the rule means that the true extent of pollution could be concealed – posing serious health risks to millions.

Researchers say that industry lobbyists and business interests are among those that have pushed to have ‘exceptional events’ forgiven.

A provision in the Clean Air Act has allowed local regulators in 70 US counties to claim the air was cleaner than it really was

A provision in the Clean Air Act has allowed local regulators in 70 US counties to claim the air was cleaner than it really was

Many of the days with poor air quality happened thanks to wildfires in Canada

Many of the days with poor air quality happened thanks to wildfires in Canada 

Affected areas include California, swathes of the West Coast, Rhode Island’s coastline, the Ohio rust belt and the bayous of Louisiana. 

Vijay Limaye, a climate and health epidemiologist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told the Guardian, ‘We may have a sort of stable, relatively rosy picture when it comes to our regulatory world in terms of air-quality trends.

‘The true conditions on the ground in terms of the air that people are breathing in, day after day, week after week, year after year, is increasingly an unhealthy situation.’

Many of the ‘problem’ days came in June when Canadian wildfires stained skies in the eastern U.S. and Midwest, with 20 states having flagged high air-quality readings.

The EPA rules state: ‘Exceptional events are unusual or naturally occurring events that can affect air quality but are not reasonably controllable using techniques that tribal, state or local air agencies may implement.

‘Exceptional events may include wildfires, high wind dust events, prescribed fires, stratospheric ozone intrusions, and volcanic and seismic activities.’

Research by the Guardian and Muckrock found that regulators in 21 states had filed to forgive pollution and 20 of those requests were accepted.

Wildfires can have lasting effects on human health

Wildfires can have lasting effects on human health

Regulators noted 700 ‘exceptional’ events and the EPA adjusted data on 139 of these.

Michael Wara, the director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment told the Guardian: ‘We have saved more lives in this country because we cleaned up the air than almost any other environmental policy. And that’s what’s being undermined.

‘The world has changed. We are living in a different world when it comes to wildfire and all of its consequences, including air pollution.’

A report published by the UN last year warned that wildfires are on track to increase 50 percent by 2050 thanks in part to man-made climate change.

The EPA says, ‘Multiple studies have found that climate change has already led to an increase in wildfire season length, wildfire frequency, and burned area.’

Research in 2022 focusing on fires in the Pacific Northwest suggests that the pollution could put the health of millions of people at risk.

Misuse of the rule could hamper attempts to crack down on polluters, experts warned

Misuse of the rule could hamper attempts to crack down on polluters, experts warned

Research last year led by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), found that levels of carbon monoxide – a gas that indicates the presence of other air pollutants – increased as wildfires spread in August.

The research showed that pollutants could affect more than 130 million people, including about 34 million in the Pacific Northwest, 23 million in the Central U.S., and 72 million in the Northeast.

Khanya Brann, an EPA spokesperson said, ‘Wildland fire and smoke pose increasing challenges and human health impacts in communities all around the country.

‘EPA works closely with other federal agencies, state and local health departments, tribal nations, and other partners to provide information, tools, and resources to support communities in preparing for, responding to, and reducing health impacts from wildland fire and smoke.’



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