We know the burden of dirty air isn’t distributed evenly. In the United States, Black, Brown, and Indigenous people experience disproportionately higher exposure to soot pollution, on average, than white people because sources of this deadly pollutant are more likely located in and around their communities.
For these communities, the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent proposal to strengthen the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for soot falls short of the Biden administration’s commitment to advance environmental justice.
Soot, also known as particle pollution, is not healthy to breathe. Research shows that people of color experience higher than average levels of soot exposure from power plants and industry, light-duty vehicles, diesel-powered heavy-duty trucks, and construction.
These tiny particles have an enormous impact on our health. When inhaled, this kind of pollution also triggers asthma attacks, causes respiratory symptoms such as coughing, and decreases lung function. It also hinders normal lung development. As a mother of four, I worry about my kids breathing dirty air while at playing soccer, riding their bikes, or while simply playing at the park.
The health impacts from soot pollution disproportionately impact communities of color too. Carolina Peña, EcoMadres Program Manager, testified about the need for stronger soot standards at a public EPA hearing this week: “People of color are six times more likely to visit the emergency room for air pollution-triggered asthma than white people. Thirty-nine percent of the Latino population lives within 30 miles of a power plant—the distance within which the maximum effects of fine particle soot from the smokestack plume are expected to occur. For many, the situation is worsened by a lack of health insurance and by language barriers,” she said.
The impact of soot pollution is felt in unique ways in Latino communities. Many Latino families live in multigenerational homes in which they have grown roots generation after generation. People may ask, why don’t families impacted by pollution just move?
Karin Stein, the EcoMadres State Coordinator for Iowa, also testified at the public EPA hearing. “Families stay because their house is their home, in an area they can afford. Because their medical resources and specialists are nearby. Because everyone has the right to breathe clean air without having to become uprooted,” Karin said.
The solution is not for vulnerable people to have to flee from soot pollution, but for proper standards to be implemented—standards supported by scientific research. “Moving cannot be the answer when 40% of people in the country live with inadequate air quality,” said Erandi Treviño, an EcoMadres state coordinator in Texas, at the public EPA hearing.
Mercedes McKinley, an EcoMadres state coordinator for Nevada also testified: “Our communities are tired of our air getting dirtier and feeling abandoned by environmental regulations. We are tired of being statistics. Stronger protections against soot pollution can help address these historical injustices of communities long overburdened by dirty air.”
Strong soot protections can also save lives. By tightening national standards for soot further than the levels currently proposed, EPA could save up to 16,000 lives and prevent hundreds of thousands of adverse health impacts every year. In fact, the benefits of lowering soot concentrations in the air would advance health equity considerably.
Every day that passes without strengthened protections is a missed opportunity to protect our health, advance environmental justice, and reduce other dangerous pollution from these sources.
This is why we are calling on EPA to set a more health protective standard for soot of 8 micrograms per cubic meter for the annual standard and 25 micrograms per cubic meter for the daily standard.
Our communities deserve action now.