The EPA wants to strengthen air pollution rules — does its plan do enough?

The EPA wants to strengthen air pollution rules — does its plan do enough?

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The EPA proposed tightening restrictions on soot in the air. Advocates are pushing for the agency to get tougher.

People walk along an overpass above the Cross Bronx Expressway, a notorious stretch of highway in New York City that is often choked with traffic and contributes to pollution and poor air quality on November 16th, 2021, in New York City.
Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

For the first time in over a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency could toughen its standard for how much soot is allowed in the air we breathe. Today, it proposed lowering the regulatory threshold for fine particulate matter, commonly called soot. Still, some major health and environmental groups say the EPA’s plan is too lenient on the pervasive pollutant that disproportionately burdens communities of color.

“Today’s proposal from EPA to update the national annual limits on particulate matter pollution misses the mark and is inadequate to protect public health from this deadly pollutant,” Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said in a statement.

For some common pollutants, including particulate matter, the EPA sets a maximum amount of the substance allowed over a certain period of time. Those limits essentially define what’s considered clean air. State and local officials are required to make sure that air quality meets those standards and make plans to clean up any areas that exceed air pollution limits.

For fine particulate matter, the EPA has limits on the average amount of the pollutant allowed over a year and within a 24-hour time span. That addresses chronic exposure as well as more brief spikes in the harmful pollutant from, say, a fire.The EPA’s recent decision drops the national standard for airborne particulate 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 its previous 24-hour limit of 35 micrograms per cubic meter rather than making that rule stricter.

Those standards aren’t as tough as recommendations laid out by the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), a group tasked with giving independent advice on air quality standards to the EPA. Last year, a majority of the committee members recommended setting the annual limit between 8-10 micrograms. It also recommended a 24-hour limit of 25-30 micrograms.

“Right now, EPA’s outdated 24-hour standard means that people may be told that the air outside is safe to breathe on a day when it is not,” Wimmer said. The standard informs the EPA’s air quality index, a scale often used to help people understand the pollution risks they might face on any given day.

After breathing in particulate matter, the smallest particles can enter the lungs and even bloodstream. Short-term spikes in fine particulate matter have been linked to a higher risk of hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease and more severe asthma attacks in kids. Year-round exposure to particulate pollution has also been tied to children developing asthma and a heightened risk of heart attacks, strokes, and death from cardiovascular disease.

“This is disappointing because exposure to this kind 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,” Hayden Hashimoto, an associate attorney at the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force, said in a statement.

Some 63.2 million Americans, or nearly 20 percent of the population, live in counties that earned an “F” grade for spikes in particulate pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report. There are a lot of different sources of particulate matter — from cars and trucks to factories, power plants, and fires. Moreover, that pollution tends to hit certain communities the hardest. People of color are 3.6 times more likely to live in places with multiple failing grades for soot and smog, according to the State of the Air.

The America Lung Association and the Clean Air Task Force both want to see the strictest recommendations from CASAC implemented. Some conservation groups also expressed disappointment today over the lack of an updated 24-hour standard and additional provisions considering the impact soot has on nature.

“The science is clear — soot is bad for the health of our communities and national parks. Because countless people and organizations like the National Parks Conservation Association spoke out and demanded the Biden administration take action, they’ve taken this modest step toward cleaner air, but it doesn’t go far enough,” Ulla Reeves, campaigns director for the National Parks Conservation Association’s Clean Air Program, said in a statement. 

The national air quality standard is typically updated every five years. But the Trump administration decided not to do so in 2020, so the revision is long overdue. The EPA’s proposed rule will be open for 60 days of public comment before a final standard is issued this year.

The EPA has calculated the benefits it believes its current proposal will eventually bring. Cutting down particulate pollution to its updated standard could prevent up to 4,200 premature deaths each year, the agency says. It also says the proposed rule will stave off 270,000 lost workdays annually and lead to $43 billion in net health benefits in 2032.

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Justine Calma

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