On December 14, the Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to release a final standard for allowable levels of soot in ambient outdoor air. Moms Clean Air Force supporters have been speaking up since the proposed standard was released for public comment back in June, urging the agency to finalize a strong standard that will adequately protect children from the microscopic particles that lodge deep in the lungs and cause a myriad of health problems. These particles originate where fossil fuels are burned, such as in cars, trucks, and power plants.
- Soot exposure specifically harms babies, by causing premature birth and low birth weight. Fetuses exposed to more soot are born smaller and earlier compared to fetuses exposed to less. The evidence for these adverse reproductive health effects is strong and growing stronger. A 2011 systematic review of the scientific literature examined 41 published studies on the topic and found that PM2.5 exposure was consistently associated with low birth weight, preterm birth, and small-for-gestational-age births. So, soot gets inside pregnant women’s bodies and harms our babies before they are even born. No consumer gizmo can solve this problem; no high tech HEPA-filter vacuum will fix this; no special mask to wear while behind the wheel will take this away. This is a job for big government, in the best sense of the term. EPA needs to take strong action against these invisible particles harming our future.
- Lest you think that such effects on newborn babies don’t sound like a big deal, premature birth and low birth weight are linked to some serious health consequences. Low birth weight is a potent predictor of infant mortality as well as subsequent illnesses in infancy and childhood, such as cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, lung disease, asthma, and cognitive development. Similarly, preterm birth is associated with infant mortality and health problems in childhood and adulthood. But the harm doesn’t stop in childhood. A growing body of evidence suggests that low birth weight and preterm birth predict several important aspects of health well beyond childhood. For example, low birth weight is associated with heart disease, heart attacks, and Type 2 diabetes among adults. It is unknown whether the low birth weight caused by soot is the same low birth weight that increases diabetes risk. But in a country like ours, where 12% of all live births are preterm and 8% of babies are low birth weight, and where these adverse birth outcomes disproportionately affect poor and non-white babies, I don’t need to wait for definitive scientific proof. Let’s take reasonable measures to continue to reduce soot exposure. We know it will improve the health of our population right now. And it just might have the added benefit of protecting infants from future chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes. Win-win, right?
- Soot exposure from traffic pollution is hardest on poor and minority communities. Here’s why: Traffic emissions are one of the largest sources of soot pollution in cities, and the concentration of traffic pollutants is highest near roadways. Heavily trafficked roads are basically corridors of pollution in many cities, and these are the same areas where you’ll find higher density of residences, schools, stores, and workplaces. (According to EPA, more than 45 millions Americans live within 300 feet of a highway.) African Americans and low-income neighborhoods are closer to major roadways, and so they bear the brunt of this pollution. Can you say “vicious cycle”? The new soot standard will require cities to measure soot pollution near roads. There won’t be a simple fix for this kind of injustice, but taking some measurements to get a handle on the problem is a key first step. Bravo to EPA for including near-road monitors in the draft soot standard. Let’s make sure we’ll be reading about near-road monitors on December 14, when we see the final standard.
- A growing body of evidence suggests that soot pollution harms brain development in babies. A study published this week found that autistic children in California were significantly more likely to have been exposed to soot pollution in utero and during the first year of life compared to children without the disease. The research does not prove that soot pollution causes autism; there are certainly many risk factors at work. However, it adds to an important strain of research that raises some very troubling questions. This is your baby’s brain on soot? It’s almost too much to joke about.
- Limiting soot pollution helps avert climate chaos, ensuring a healthier future for our children, our children’s children, and beyond. Black carbon, the main component of soot, is a significant climate forcer. This means that it absorbs sunlight, increasing the heat-trapping qualities of our atmosphere and raising temperatures. An important quality of black carbon is its short lifespan. It stays in the atmosphere for 1-4 weeks as opposed to centuries, as is the case with carbon dioxide. This means that reductions in emissions of black carbon would have immediate climate benefits. Less soot means less asthma and stroke and heart disease – but it also means less black carbon, and therefore less climate change, which is no small threat to our health. Air pollution and climate chaos go hand in hand. Improving one helps the other.