The Clean Air Act and Amendments of 1990 define a "nonattainment area" as a locality where air pollution levels persistently exceed National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or that contributes to ambient air quality in a nearby area that fails to meet standards. Designating an area as nonattainment is a formal rulemaking process, and EPA normally takes this action only after air quality standards have been exceeded for several consecutive years. Nonattainment areas are given a classification based on the severity of the violation and the type of air quality standard they exceed.
EPA designations of nonattainment areas are only based on violations of national air quality standards for carbon monoxide, lead, ozone (1-hour), particulate matter (PM-10), and sulfur dioxide. EPA has not yet designated areas based on the newer 8-hour ozone or PM 2.5 standards. Currently, there are no nonattainment listings for nitrogen dioxide.