Particle proposals see EPA urged to do more

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has revealed its plans to strengthen a key national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for fine particle pollution, but experts have called for the organisation to go further.

Fine particle pollution also known as PM2.5, and commonly known as soot can penetrate deep into the lungs and can result in serious health effects that include asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature death – disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations including children, older adults, those with heart or lung conditions, as well as communities of colour and low-income communities throughout the United States.

Since EPA completed its last review of the PM NAAQS in 2012, thousands of new scientific studies have demonstrated the dangers of soot exposure. Strengthening the primary annual PM2.5 standard is expected to address disparities and would result in significant public health benefits. EPA estimates that if finalized, a strengthened primary annual PM2.5 standard at a level of 9 micrograms per cubic meter, the lower end of the proposed range, would prevent:

  • up to 4,200 premature deaths per year;
  • 270,000 lost workdays per year;
  • result in as much as $43 billion in net health benefits in 2032.

The particles may be emitted directly from a source, such as construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks, or fires; other particles form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted from power plants, industrial facilities, and vehicles.

The EPA’s proposal will specifically examine strengthening the primary (health-based) annual PM2.5 standard from a level of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to a level between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter, reflecting the latest health data and scientific evidence.

“Our work to deliver clean, breathable air for everyone is a top priority at EPA, and this proposal will help ensure that all communities, especially the most vulnerable among us, are protected from exposure to harmful pollution,” said EPA administrator Michael Regan. “This proposal to deliver stronger health protections against particulate matter is grounded in the best available science, advancing the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to scientific integrity and a rigorous scientific process.”

“As a physician who’s passionate about oncology and dedicated to enhancing the health equity that’s so often needed in Black communities and other communities of colour, I am grateful for the Biden Administration’s commitment to advancing equity and justice for all,” said Dr Doris Browne, former president of the National Medical Association. “No one should be sickened by the environment they live in, and EPA’s proposal marks the start of changes that will have lasting impacts in communities all over, especially Black and brown communities that often experience increased PM pollution. Harmful air pollution can have lasting and devastating impacts on people’s health, but by strengthening air quality standards, we can ensure healthier, more sustainable communities across this country.”

However there have been calls for the proposals to go further and faster.

Anita Desikan, senior analyst for the Centre for Science and Democracy at Union of Concerned Scientists said: “For years, communities across the country have called on the federal government to tackle the dangers of particulate matter pollution, one of the most common and harmful pollutants affecting our air. The science is clear—PM pollution causes serious health problems, and the biggest impacts are hitting Black, Latinx, and low-income people, many of whom are already overburdened with exposure to multiple pollutants. Over the past decade, study after study has shown how breathing PM pollution causes real, meaningful damage. Today’s proposal gets us closer to where we need to be—but the problem is urgent and the solution is long overdue. EPA needs to act quickly, follow the science, and finalize the strongest possible rule.”

Beto Lugo Martinez, executive director of Clean Air Now said that even with the new standards the EPA could and should do more.

“Everyone deserves to breathe clean air. However, Brown and Black communities at the fence line of environmental hazards are overburdened with multiple air pollutants from various sources,” he said. “EPA’s action to strengthen its particulate matter standard is a good step, but without strategic placing of regulatory monitors that can actually measure excessive pollution levels and the will to make polluters pay for violating the standard, this new ‘recommendation’ will not make a difference in communities. Without enforcement of the Clean Air Act, this administration’s so-called environmental justice priorities will be hollow words.

“Even with this improved particulate matter standard, and even if it is fully enforced, there is still work EPA needs to do to measure and address the cumulative impact of the hazards we are being exposed to daily. Despite excuses and delays from EPA, environmental justice communities like ours are equipped to inform where EPA places its monitors—members of our community in Kansas City have even offered their residences as places to locate regulatory monitors. It’s time for the EPA to seek out solutions instead of excuses and to do its job to keep us all safe.”