by Marina Courtney
Earlier this year, the US EPA proposed revisions to National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) on dangerous soot pollution, also referred to as particulate matter (PM2.5). The last time concentrations were strengthened was in 2012, and our understanding of air pollution and its impact has grown so much since then.
The proposal’s key takeaways:
While this proposal is certainly a step in the right direction, it is not enough to adequately protect public health.
The EPA is seeking public input on its proposal, and CleanAIRE NC is advocating for the standard to be toughened to a minimum of 8.0 µg/m³. Stand with us and the communities most impacted by air pollution and urge the EPA to enact the strongest possible soot pollution standards.
Soot particles, commonly measured in micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³), are 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. These tiny pollutants are easily inhaled into our lungs, where they are small enough to pass into our bloodstream and wreak havoc on other primary organs, including the heart and brain.
PM2.5 are dispersed into the air when burning fuel for energy—through power plants, factories, wood burning, construction zones, agricultural sites, or vehicle exhaust—and as a result of wildfires.
To be clear, there is no evidence for a safe level of PM2.5 exposure that can avoid adverse health effects. And while the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a comparatively rigorous limit of 5 µg/m³, the EPA’s proposed minimum falls short of even the 8 µg/m³ limit recommended by their own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC).
So why are these tiny soot particles so dangerous to human health? As mentioned above, fine particulate pollution is small enough to infiltrate our bloodstream and damage many of our major organ systems. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), 63 million Americans experience the short-term effects of particulate matter on a daily basis. That’s 17% of the national population.
Soot exposure doesn’t just harm our physical health either. It is also linked to devastating mental health consequences, including depression or even suicide. And for pregnany women, soot exposure has been linked with a variety of adverse birth outcomes. It goes without saying that soot can seriously hinder a person’s quality of life.
Just how deadly are these dangerous pollutants? In North Carolina, nine of ten leading causes of death can be caused or worsened by particulate matter: 1) heart disease, 2) cancer, 3) COVID-19, 4) stroke, 5) chronic lower respiratory diseases, 6) alzheimer’s disease, 7) diabetes, 8) kidney disease, and 9) influenza/pneumonia.
Pre-existing conditions—like cardiovascular or respiratory diseases—result in an increase in emergency room visits and hospital admissions.
These health burdens are not shared equally. Children, seniors, pregnant women, people with underlying medical conditions (e.g. asthma, COPD, heart disease), low-income communities, and outdoor workers are all disproportionately impacted by daily PM2.5 exposure.
Communities with lower socioeconomic status (SES) and people of color are particularly vulnerable. Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) routinely face the highest levels of PM2.5 pollution.
In fact, when compared to white communities, Black residents are 300% more likely to die from PM2.5 exposure under current regulatory standards due to a lack of resources and high concentrations of particulate matter in dense, disparate communities. Hispanic residents, meanwhile, are 25% more likely to die from soot pollution than their white counterparts.
Ignoring this scientific data would mean fueling a dangerous environmental injustice. The EPA’s own analysis states that we can reduce racial disparities in pollution exposure only if we adopt a standard stronger than its current proposal.
Simply put, reducing soot pollution will save lives. An EPA regulatory analysis estimates that adopting a tougher standard (i.e. 9µg/m³) could prevent as many as 4,200 premature deaths each year. That’s on top of a plethora of other health benefits, and protecting unrepresented and underfunded communities.
And beyond our health, stronger PM2.5 safeguards will also yield tremendous economic and societal benefits, annually preventing an estimated 270,000 lost workdays and saving as much as $43 billion in healthcare spending by 2032.
Clean air standards that don’t reflect public health realities must be challenged. We can’t afford to wait another decade to revisit PM2.5 protections that remain inadequate. The time for change is now.
There’s still time to make an impact on your local community and the country as a whole. The public comment period is open until March 28th. If we act now, we can curb the most dangerous effects of toxic soot pollution, such as cancer, asthma attacks, and heart disease.
Let the EPA know you stand with future generations and the communities most impacted by air pollution. Submit your feedback calling for the strongest possible soot pollution standards, today.
Guest author Marina Courtney is a freelance writer and editor. A people-person by nature, she enjoys spending time with loved ones.