For the first time in more than a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency was able to tighten its standard for the amount of soot allowed in the air we breathe. Today it has proposed lowering the regulatory threshold for particulate matter, colloquially referred to as soot. Still, some major health and environmental groups say the EPA’s plan is too lenient on the ubiquitous pollutant that places a disproportionate burden on communities of color.
“Today’s proposal from the EPA to update national annual particulate pollution limits misses the mark and is inadequate to protect public health from this deadly pollutant,” said Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, in a statement.
“Today’s proposal from the EPA to update national annual particulate pollution limits misses the mark and is inadequate to protect public health from this deadly pollutant.”
For a number of common pollutants, including particulate matter, the EPA sets a maximum amount of the substance that is allowed for a specific period of time. Those limits essentially define what is considered clean air. State and local officials are required to ensure air quality meets those standards and make plans to clean up areas that exceed air pollution limits.
For particulate matter, the EPA has limits on the average amount of pollutants allowed over a year and within a 24-hour time frame. This focuses on both chronic exposure and shorter peaks in the harmful pollutant from, for example, a fire. The EPA’s recent decision lowers the national standard for particulate air pollution from an annual average limit of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter. The agency decided to stick with the previous 24-hour limit of 35 micrograms per cubic meter rather than tighten that rule.
Those standards are not as strict as the recommendations of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), a group tasked with providing independent advice on air quality standards to the EPA. Last year, a majority of the committee members recommended setting the annual limit at between 8 and 10 micrograms. It also recommended a 24-hour limit of 25-30 micrograms.
“Right now, the EPA’s outdated 24-hour standard means people are being told the air outside is safe to breathe on a day when it’s not,” said Wimmer. The standard informs the EPA’s Air Quality Index, a scale often used to help people understand the pollution risks they may face on any given day.
After inhaling particulate matter, the smallest particles can enter the lungs and even enter the bloodstream. Short-term spikes in particulate matter have been linked to a higher risk of hospitalizations for cardiovascular disease and more severe asthma attacks in children. Year-round exposure to particulate pollution has also been linked to children developing asthma and an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and death from cardiovascular disease.
“This is disappointing because exposure to this type of pollution poses serious health risks and disproportionately impacts low-income and historically marginalized communities that tend to be located near major transportation routes and hubs and industrial facilities,” says Hayden Hashimoto , attorney at the non-profit organization. Clean Air Task Force, said in a statement.
According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report, about 63.2 million Americans, or nearly 20 percent of the population, live in counties that have earned an “F” rating for particulate pollution spikes. There are many different sources of particulate matter – from cars and trucks to factories, power plants and fires. Moreover, this pollution hits certain communities the hardest. According to the State of the Air, people of color are 3.6 times more likely to live in places with multiple failings for soot and smog.
The America Lung Association and the Clean Air Task Force both want CASAC’s most stringent recommendations implemented. Some conservation groups also today expressed their disappointment at the lack of an updated 24-hour standard and additional provisions given the impact of soot on wildlife.
“The science is clear: soot is bad for the health of our communities and national parks. As countless people and organizations like the National Parks Conservation Association have spoken out and demanded that the Biden administration take action, they have taken this modest step towards cleaner air, but it doesn’t go far enough,” said Ulla Reeves, National Parks campaign director. conservation association. The Parks Conservation Association’s Clean Air Program, said in a statement.
The review is long overdue
The national air quality standard is usually updated every five years. But the Trump administration decided not to do this in 2020, so the review is long overdue. The EPA’s proposed rule will be open for public comment for 60 days before a final standard is issued this year.
The EPA has calculated what benefits it believes the current proposal will ultimately deliver. Reducing particulate pollution to the updated standard could prevent up to 4,200 premature deaths each year, the agency says. It also says the proposed rule will prevent 270,000 lost workdays annually and lead to $43 billion in net health benefits by 2032.