Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned after acknowledging that millions of diesel-engine vehicles were equipped with software built to fool emissions tests. The car manufacturer may face billions in fines from the United States for violating the Clean Air Act. Illinois State University’s Director of Sustainability Missy Nergard talks about why the 45-year-old act is still so important.

Volkswagen’s blatant fraud has consequences that adversely impact public and environmental health worldwide.

Because air is a fluid and highly shared resource, pollution protection at the federal level is imperative to ensuring consistent standards for emissions across the nation. While it is easy to point at a smoke stack and recognize a source of emissions, the reality is that every vehicle, plane, train, boat, and lawnmower impacts air quality. Realistically, global standards need to be adopted since air does not recognize geopolitical boundaries.

In the United States, the purpose of the Clean Air Act (1970) is to protect public health and welfare, and to that end the act has been very effective. A peer-reviewed study conducted by the EPA in 2011 estimates that during the first 20 years of the act, the health benefits to the nation reflect an estimated $22.2 trillion dollars of avoided costs. (Note: that is a central estimate – the range was $5.1 to $48.9 trillion). By 2020 (50 years after the initiation of the Clean Air Act), it is estimated that 230,000 American adults and 280 infants will have avoided premature deaths each year.

While the act is 45 years old, it has been amended twice and the language of the act allows for the regulation of evolving threats to public health. Particulates and chemical emissions that did not exist at the time of the legislation are covered by these amendments. For example, in 2007 the Supreme Court ruled that global warming emissions are air pollutants and would be subject to the Clean Air Act. In 2009 the EPA made two findings related to these types of emissions, and the agency subsequently implemented greenhouse gas emission standards.

Climate change is a global threat, and disproportionately impacts lower socio-economic groups and developing nations. These are populations that don’t have adequate access to health care and generally live in neighborhoods near industrial zones or mass transportation. They are exposed to more pollutants, yet have fewer medical treatment options and little to no environmental remediation to mitigate the emissions.

Respiratory illnesses have also been demonstrated to impact learning and behavior. School-age children may spend a lot of time on buses, or may utilize or live along public transportation routes where they have higher exposure to diesel fumes. As an educational institution that produces a large number of teachers, these environmental impacts to students’ health and ability to learn are a major consideration.

Nergard can be reached via