The EPA Announces New Soot Standards

Living in a polluted air basin like California’s Central Valley and having asthma means never being too far from an inhaler. Fresno ranks in the top three across all three pollution categories in the 2023 edition of the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report. I keep an inhaler in my purse and another in my bathroom.

The good news is that the Biden Administration finalized a stronger air quality standard for fine particle pollution or soot. The new standard changes the ambient air level for PM2.5 from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to nine.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the standard will prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays. It will also bring up to $46 billion in net health benefits in 2032. There could be up to $77 in human health benefits in 2032 for every $1 spent on meeting this standard.

The EPA announced in June 2021 that it would reconsider the December 2020 decision to keep the 2012 standards. The scientific evidence indicated that the standards were not strong enough to protect public health. In addition to available science and technical information, the EPA looked at the recommendations of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. The EPA set two standards for PM2.5: the annual standard, which the federal agency recently revised, and a 24-hour standard, which the agency kept.

“This final air quality standard will save lives and make all people healthier, especially within America’s most vulnerable and overburdened communities,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “EPA looks forward to continuing our decades of success in working with states, counties, Tribes, and industry to ensure this critical health standard is implemented effectively to improve the long-term health and productivity of our nation.”

The Health Impacts of PM2.5

The EPA also changed the monitoring network design criteria to account for the proximity of populations at increased risk of PM2.5 health effects. Air pollution from PM2.5 causes a slew of health problems, especially for vulnerable populations such as children, older adults, and those with certain conditions like asthma.

Studies show that PM2.5 exposure can lead to asthma attacks because the fine particles can penetrate the lungs. One study looked at data from five databases to examine the impact of PM2.5 on asthma emergency room visits. Researchers found that asthma ER visits increased with higher PM2.5 concentrations. An analysis of studies on PM2.5 found a link between exposure and decreased lung function in adults with asthma.

Another study focused on school-aged children, measuring their respiratory health for over 25 months. Researchers assessed asthma symptoms and quick-relief medication (good ole Albuterol inhalers) bi-weekly through phone surveys. The participants also used home peak flow meters daily to measure their forced expiratory volume. They found a link between exposure to PM2.5 and increases in asthma symptoms. This is no surprise, given that children are some of the most vulnerable among us.

While the new standard is an improvement, it is higher than the World Health Organization’s five micrograms per cubic meter. Jeffrey Richardson, Chairman of the Delaware Community Benefits Agreement Coalition in Wilmington, DE, calls the new standards “a step in the right direction.” However, it is not enough for people like me with asthma. We deserve standards that truly protect our lungs.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman, freelance writer/journalist/copyeditor Twitter: @gmcheeseman

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