The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a new federal air quality standard for fine soot for the first time since 2012, marking a significant step toward reducing deadly air pollution.
For over a decade now, the annual average of fine particle pollution has been capped at 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is soliciting feedback on a proposed reduction to 9–10 micrograms per cubic meter, with a range of 8–11 micrograms per cubic meter up for discussion.
The ultimate benchmark will be a single digit value within that band. The combustion of fossil fuels like gasoline, diesel, oil, and wood results in fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that pollutes outdoor air. Even though its size makes it one of the tiniest pollutants, its potential harm is enormous.
The inhaled particle penetrates deeply into lung tissue, from where it can enter the bloodstream and thereby exacerbate preexisting conditions like asthma and cardiovascular disease. People who have never smoked but are exposed to this pollution have an increased risk of developing lung cancer.
Some air pollution particles may promote mutations in cells in the airways, which is a mechanism recently discovered by scientists to explain the increased risk. In 2021, the World Health Organization urged environmental agencies to reduce the safe air limit to 5 micrograms per cubic meter due to the severe health risks involved.
The science is clear—soot-causing air pollution seriously threatens human health, especially in downwind and disadvantaged communities. @EPA's proposal is a more than welcome step to strengthen our clean air standards and better protect human health.https://t.co/i09pagOUjd
— Senator Tom Carper (@SenatorCarper) January 6, 2023
Although there is no safe level of air pollution, the organization estimates that this measure could reduce deaths caused by fine particle pollution by as much as 80%. The EPA proposal is stronger than prior standards, but it still falls short of the WHO’s recommendation.
The American Lung Association’s CEO and president, Harold Wimmer, called the proposal “misses the mark and is inadequate to protect public health.” Particle pollution is lethal, Wimmer said in a statement. According to him, the EPA ought to take the advice of doctors and set the cap at 8 micrograms per cubic meter.
In addition, he mentioned that the average daily limit should be lowered from 35 micrograms per cubic meter to 25. The EPA has announced that it will accept public feedback on the proposed adjustment. Wimmer claimed that health groups are “unified” in their request.
The Administrator of the EPA, Michael Regan, has defended the proposed rule, saying it was developed after “a lot of time looking at all of the new science” and after input from both internal EPA specialists and external “stakeholders.”
As Regan explained to the press, “we arrived at this space based on strong research and rigorous review of the evidence that we have at hand.” The administrator went on to say that the agency’s environmental justice objectives would be helped by the new criterion.
BREAKING: The EPA is cracking down on soot pollution—particulate matter responsible for up to 200K premature deaths every year.
This is a critical reversal of Trump's EPA rollbacks—but we must do more to protect vulnerable communities. https://t.co/vI2zvYKhc1
— Climate Power (@ClimatePower) January 6, 2023
Particulate matter from factories and roads has a disproportionate impact on minority neighborhoods, especially those of colour. Cancer specialist and National Medical Association president Dr. Doris Browne warned that the EPA’s proposal “will have a lasting impact,”, particularly in communities of color.
Browne said to the press, “I have spent my career working for health equity and environmental justice because no one should be sickened by the environment in which they live.” As stated in the report, “Strengthening air quality regulations means healthier, more sustainable communities as harmful carbon pollution and smog have a permanent and catastrophic impact on public health.”
Every five years, and in light of new scientific evidence, the EPA must revise its limits on fine particle pollution. In 2012, when they were last revised, during the Obama administration, the concentration was dropped from 15 to 12.
During Trump’s presidency, no new restrictions were imposed. Environmental and public health organizations voiced their disapproval of the Trump administration’s decision. Former EPA chief Andrew Wheeler said that there was no need to raise the bar because the United States had already “made remarkable gains in lowering particulate matter concentrations.”
But Wheeler’s remarks were in stark contrast to the advice of the EPA’s scientists, who determined that further tightening soot limits may save thousands of lives. Despite the suggested revision, the Biden administration is already behind the track.
When Regan first said that the EPA will look at tighter restrictions on soot, the agency’s timeline was to provide a draught rule by summer 2022 and then finalize the rule this spring. The proposed rule that was released on Friday will be subject to public feedback before being finalized later this year.
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