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Air pollution basics

The air we breathe should be primarily oxygen and nitrogen with just a few other chemicals thrown in from natural sources. Modern life and all the vehicles and industrial activities that come with it have added a large number of additional chemicals to the mix. Because of the detrimental effects of many of those chemicals, their presence is considered to pollute the air. Air pollution regulations are intended to minimize the detrimental effects on people and the environment, not just plants and animals but structures as well.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a system to rank the quality of the air and let people know whether it's healthy for them to be outside. This ranking system is called the air quality index. To learn more about this ranking system, watch the Air Quality Index video.

The DNR notifies the public when there are air quality advisories. You can subscribe to the DNR's notification system from the Wisconsin county air quality notices page.

Air pollution from a small business

While your small business may not emit as much air pollution as a large business does, it still may be regulated and subject to permits due to the combined effects of the air pollution from many small Wisconsin businesses. It's important to reduce air pollution so that everyone can enjoy our natural resources.

Business activities that generate air pollution

Manufacturing and other industrial businesses include a range of processes that can generate or create air pollution in the course of their day-to-day operation. The following is a description of some of those operations and the primary air pollutants that may result.

  1. Operations that use adhesives, inks, paints, varnishes, clean up solvents or any materials that contain solvents. These types of materials generate volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. Such operations would include things like: paint booths, printing, metal fabrication, kitchen counter top production, cabinet or other wood product gluing or finishing, and some dry cleaning.
  2. Operations that release dust, smoke or fumes. These type of emissions are called particulates or particulate matter. Such operations include things like: grinding, sanding, welding, material handling (grain, rock/gravel, dirt, flour, etc.) and vehicle traffic on dirt roads. There are a wide variety of regulations that might apply to these operations.
  3. Operations that burn fuels to generate heat, generate power/electricity, or process steam. Such operations have not only particulate matter emissions but also carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide (if sulfur is in the fuel) and nitrogen oxides. Specific regulations apply to these operations.
  4. All of the listed operations as well as many unique operations that don't fit into the above categories may emit hazardous air pollutants. Unique operations may include: electroplating, acid/caustic baths for parts cleaning or etching, etc., asbestos material handling/removal, water chlorination and ammonia refrigeration, to name just a few.

Retail or commercial businesses

Some retail or commercial operations may also generate sufficient air pollution, or air pollution of a type that is very toxic, such that they are regulated, too. For example, dry cleaners using perchloroethylene or petroleum solvents are strictly regulated by the EPA and the DNR. Moreover, auto body refinishing (collision repair) facilities have regulations from the EPA that they must meet. If one of these types of retail or commercial operations fits your business, you may have to meet certain air pollution requirements.

Other retail or commercial establishments like restaurants or hair salons, while they generate fumes or use certain chemicals, are not currently regulated for air pollution that goes off their property.

Learn more about air pollution and how it applies to your business

Read our Air Pollution Basics (SB-100) fact sheet to learn about how air pollution is regulated.

Review our air regulations page to see if any regulations that might affect your operations. There may be opportunity for you to provide comments to the DNR or the EPA on proposed regulations. If enough businesses comment on a proposed regulation, the agency may modify their regulations. Once a regulation is finalized, changing it becomes more difficult.

Get on our mailing list for the Small Business Advisor newsletter. The Advisor is a newsletter written by SBEAP staff to share information about new air pollution regulations and other environmental issues that may impact businesses in Wisconsin. You can sign up to receive the newsletter and read back issues on Small Business Advisor archived newsletters.

Other pollution regulations that affect a business

We have also created regulatory fact sheets specific to different types of small businesses or common process equipment used by many businesses and included links to resources created by DNR programs on their rules. Review the Resources for Industries webpage to learn more.

Once you understand which rules apply, you may need assistance with demonstrating that you are complying with the rules. We have created additional resources at tools to help with compliance issues.

For a quick checklist of other environmental programs that may affect your business, review the Environmental Information Summary Checklist (SB-003). It would also be a good idea to review the Purchasing Property pages for a range of requirements that might apply to a business property.

Additional resources