February 3, 2023

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The EPA wants to tighten the air pollution rules – is their plan enough?

For the first time in over a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency has tightened its standard for how much soot is allowed in the air we breathe. Today she proposed lowering the regulatory threshold for particulate matter, commonly known as black carbon. Still, some major health and environmental groups say the EPA’s plan is too lenient on the ubiquitous pollutant that’s disproportionately impacting communities of color.

“Today’s EPA proposal to update national annual limits for fine particulate matter falls short of target and is insufficient to protect public health from this deadly pollutant,” said Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, in a statement Explanation.

“Today’s EPA proposal to update national annual limits for fine particulate matter falls short of target and is insufficient to protect public health from this deadly pollutant.”

For some common pollutants, including particulate matter, the EPA sets a maximum amount of the substance that is allowable over a period of time. These limits essentially define what is considered clean air. State and local officials must ensure air quality meets these standards and create plans to clean up any areas that exceed air pollution limits.

For particulate matter, the EPA has limits on the average amount of the pollutant that is allowable over a year and over a 24-hour period. This applies to both chronic exposure and shorter peaks of the harmful pollutant, for example from a fire. The EPA’s latest decision lowers the national standard for fine particulate air pollution from an annual average limit of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to 9 to 10 micrograms per cubic meter. The agency decided to stick with its previous 24-hour limit of 35 micrograms per cubic meter rather than make that rule stricter.

These standards aren’t as stringent as recommendations from the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), a group tasked with providing independent advice to the EPA on air quality standards. Last year, a majority of committee members recommended setting the annual limit 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“Right now, the EPA’s outdated 24-hour standard means people can be told the air outside is safe to breathe on a day when it’s not,” Wimmer said. The standard provides information on the EPA’s Air Quality Index, a scale commonly used to help people understand the pollution risks they might be exposed to on any given day.

After inhaling fine dust, the smallest particles can get into the lungs and even into the bloodstream. Short-term spikes in particulate matter have been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease hospitalizations and more severe asthma attacks in children. Year-round exposure to particulate matter pollution has also been linked to the development of childhood 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, which are typically located near major transportation routes, hubs and industrial facilities,” said Hayden Hashimoto, Associate Attorney at the nonprofit organization Clean Air Task Force, said in a statement.

About 63.2 million Americans, or nearly 20 percent of the population, live in counties that received an “F” rating for peak particulate matter pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report. There are many different sources of particulate matter – from cars and trucks to factories, power plants and fires. Additionally, this pollution tends to hit certain communities hardest. According to State of the Air, people of color are 3.6 times more likely to live in places with multiple insufficient soot and smog scores.

The America Lung Association and the Clean Air Task Force both want CASAC’s most stringent recommendations to be implemented. Some conservation groups have also today expressed disappointment at the lack of an updated 24-hour standard and additional regulations given the impact black carbon is having on nature.

“The science is clear – black carbon is bad for the health of our communities and national parks. Because countless people and organizations like the National Parks Conservation Association have spoken up and called on the Biden administration to take action, they’ve taken this modest step toward cleaner air, but it doesn’t go far enough,” said Ulla Reeves, Campaign director for the National Parks Conservation Association’s Clean Air Program, said in a statement.

The revision is long overdue

The national air quality standard is usually updated every five years. But the Trump administration has decided not to do that in 2020, so the overhaul is long overdue. The EPA’s proposed rule will receive 60 days of public comment before a final standard is issued later this year.

The EPA has calculated the benefits that its current proposal will ultimately bring. Reducing particulate matter pollution to the updated standard could prevent up to 4,200 premature deaths each year, according to the agency. It also says the proposed rule will stave off 270,000 lost workdays annually and result in net health benefits of $43 billion in 2032.