You know what’s the best holiday gift of all–the promise of cleaner air! Today, after years of delay, a legal battle and facing a court-ordered deadline, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued updated major new air standards (known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS)) for fine particulate matter (PM2.5 or “soot”). Particulate matter is emitted from various sources, including vehicles, power plants, and boilers. The new standard will limit ambient concentrations of particulate matter to 12 micrograms (µg/m3) per cubic meter annually.
We applaud the Obama Administration for strengthening these important air quality regulations and for fully considering the health impacts of these pollutants. Before now, the particulate matter standards were substantially out of date and, for the most part, ignored the current science that showed how breathing soot damages our health. Particulate pollution poses a serious threat to everyone, but is especially harmful to children and people with high blood pressure, diabetes, and/or lung and heart disease.
Moreover, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson stated in today’s environmental briefing that “by 2020, it is estimated that the strengthened PM2.5 standards could provide health benefits worth up to $9 million per year. That’s more than $170 for every dollar invested in implementation. A serious return on investment.”
The Clean Air Act (CAA) requires EPA to set NAAQS for several pollutants considered harmful to public health and the environment. Also required by the statute is a periodic review of the science used to determine the appropriate standards to protect public health and the environment. For particulate matter, the process for this review and changing of the standards has been a lengthy one – especially after the Bush Administration standards were struck down. Currently, numerous areas in the Southeast violate the existing particulate matter standard, originally set in 1997.
An important aspect of these regulations is that if an area is found in violation of the standard, it becomes increasingly harder for new pollution sources, such as power plants, to obtain necessary operating permits. Opponents of the rule have claimed that this regulation will have a serious negative effect on the economy by hindering construction of new power plants and other industrial sources of particulate matter. However, the Clean Air Act requires that new regulations are based on scientific considerations rather than economic ones. Under the new rule, EPA will determine which areas are out of attainment for the new standard in 2014 and those areas will then have 6 years to come into compliance.
In addition to strengthening the standard, roadside monitoring, which is included in the rule, will be critical. Studies have demonstrated numerous adverse health outcomes for people living near highways, including increased risks for cancer, cardiovascular disease and premature mortality. More than 10% of the U.S. population lives near highways, railroads or airports-high sources of these pollutants. Specifically, there are nearly 20 million occupied housing units within 300 feet of a “4-or-more-lane highway, railroad, or airport” (i.e. traffic impacted residences) and EPA has estimated 35 million Americans live within 300 feet of a major highway.
It is undeniable that millions of people struggle to breath due to air pollution. Soot, from diesel engines, power plants and other sources, has been shown to damage our heart and lungs, cause cancer, trigger asthmas attacks and other respiratory problems, and can even result in premature death. These fine particles lodge deep in our respiratory systems and invade our blood stream, making them significantly more harmful. In fact, a recent study showed that reduced particulate matter improves life expectancy. According to the American Lung Association, stronger particulate matter standards can save up to thousands of lives, and prevent more than a million asthma attacks and thousands of heart attacks each year. (To learn more about the harmful effects of breathing in soot – check out the 2011 report “Sick of Soot” released by the American Lung Association.)
Earlier this year, EPA released their proposed new standard, tightening the standard to between 12 and 13 µg/m3 annually from the current standard of 15 µg/m3 per cubic meter. Tightening the fine particle standards as they have done to 12 µg/m3 is beneficial to everyone—improving the lives of those with acute respiratory illnesses, children, the elderly and many others, preventing further deterioration of many of our treasured, natural areas, and protecting the health of future generations.
Moreover, vulnerable populations are bearing much of the cost of excessive fine particle pollution. We must use readily available technologies to take action to reduce this pollution. For instance, diesel particulate filters (DPFs) on new diesel engines or retrofitted onto old engines are proven to reduce these emissions by at least 90%. Recently, new diesel engines became vastly cleaner due to EPA’s New Engine Rules, but substantial replacement of the old, dirty engines in use now is not projected by EPA until 2030.
The beneficial impacts of the rule won’t be immediate, but the new, protective standards are an important step in beginning to improve the lives and health of millions across the country. We applaud the Obama Administration and the leadership of EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson for their leadership in protecting public health. Now, we must work together to ensure that the new regulations are effectively implemented.