The US is strengthening its air quality rule for soot

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today finalized a significantly stricter standard for fine particulate pollution, commonly called soot. It’s the first time in 12 years that the agency has updated the rule to reflect current science and the culmination of a power struggle that has spanned three presidential administrations.

Tackling this kind of pollution is like fighting a dragon with many heads: it comes from power plants, factories, vehicles, forest fires and anything else you can think of that produces soot. That has made this rule a prime target for both health care advocates pushing for more protective policies and industries lobbying to maintain current, lax regulations.

At least for now, health advocates are scoring a victory. The updated National Air Quality Standards finalized today tighten the limits for fine particle pollution from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to 9 micrograms per cubic meter on an annual basis. That’s enough to prevent 4,500 premature deaths, 800,000 cases of asthma symptoms and 290,000 lost workdays by 2032, according to the EPA’s estimate.

“These are important figures, but numbers don’t really tell the whole story.”

“These are important figures, but numbers don’t really tell the whole story. The whole story is about people, families and communities who will see cleaner air and healthier lives as a result of this action,” said Doris Browne, former president of the National Medical Association which represents African American physicians, during an EPA press call yesterday . . “We know that communities, especially communities of color, and vulnerable populations have been overburdened for a long time,” Browne said.

According to a 2019 study, Black and Latino populations are exposed to about 60 percent more soot than is associated with their consumption. That is compared to a “pollution benefit” that results in non-Hispanic white Americans being exposed to about 17 percent less air pollution than is caused by their consumer behavior.

The rules finalized by the EPA today are still not as strict as other health care advocates had hoped. The American Lung Association wanted the annual limit set at 8 micrograms per cubic meter. It also unsuccessfully pushed for the EPA to tighten 24-hour limits for fine particle pollution to 25 micrograms per cubic meter. The latter measure is intended to tackle short-term spikes in pollution caused by, for example, a refinery accident, as opposed to annual limits on cumulative emissions.

To the disappointment of the Lung Association, the EPA decided to maintain the current 24-hour standard that allows 35 micrograms of fine particles per cubic meter. On the call with reporters, EPA Administrator Michael Regan defended the action, saying, “Based on science, the annual and 24-hour standards work extremely well together to provide protection against long- and short-term [fine particle pollution] exposures.”

“While the stricter annual particle pollution standard will mean fewer asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and deaths, it is disappointing that EPA did not follow the strong, science-based recommendations of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the health community to also adopt the guideline to revise. 24-hour standard to better protect public health,” Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said in a statement.

National air quality standards essentially define what is considered clean air, forcing state and local officials to keep pollution below those thresholds. The standards are usually updated every five years, but the Trump administration previously threw a spanner in the works. It decided to adopt the recommendations of EPA experts from the Obama administration, put fossil fuel insiders at the head of the EPA and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and decided to keep outdated rules on soot in 2020.

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