This was written by Environmental Defense Fund’s Elena Craft, PhD.
The extended holiday season (which seems to start as early as Halloween now!) gives us the opportunity to reflect upon what we are grateful for and have maybe even taken for granted. Things like family, friends, and good health. Fitting under the “good health” category, one thing many Americans tend to take for granted is that the air they breathe is safe and that no one is allowed to recklessly pollute another person’s air. However, air pollution is still a serious problem in the United States, claiming tens of thousands of lives every year and there are still many sources of pollution not adequately controlled, despite the availability of cost-effective, American-made technology solutions.
The Environmental Protection Agency is taking a huge step this month to protect public health by finalizing updated health-based standards for fine particulate matter (soot). Soot is one of the deadliest pollutants and contributes to thousands of premature deaths, strokes, asthma attacks and heart attacks every year. There is also emerging evidence of a possible link to autism and pollution, including soot. Sources of soot include power plants, cars and trucks, and industrial facilities.
In 2005, a committee of scientific and medical experts recommended that the annual and 24-hour air quality standards for soot be strengthened. In 2006, the Bush Administration updated the 24-hour standard from 65 micrograms to 35 micrograms per cubic meter (the highest point of the range experts recommended), but maintained the old annual standard at 15 micrograms per cubic meter. The Administration’s decision to ignore the science to update the annual standard was challenged in Court and EPA is now set to strengthen the annual standard within a range of 11–13 micrograms per cubic meter, which will ensure cleaner air for millions of Americans and is consistent with even more recent findings of the committee.
States and counties have great discretion in determining the most cost-effective and judicious way to meet the updated standards by 2020. States are very familiar with the process of implementing air quality standards for a variety of pollutants and can build off work already being done to improve air quality. Additionally, national rules like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants will help significantly reduce particulate matter emissions and help states meet the new standards.
Strengthening the annual standard to 11 micrograms per cubic meter and the 24-hour standard to 25 micrograms per cubic meter would save up to 35,700 lives every year. According to EPA’s analysis, strengthening the annual standard to 11 micrograms per cubic meter alone would yield $8.9 to 23 billion in net benefits to Americans every year. Independent analysis has also found that when there is less than full employment environmental regulation can create a net, short-term increase in jobs, something our economy certainly could use right now.
We cannot take strong soot standards for granted as there are likely to be industry and special interest groups challenging these life-saving standards in court. However, we have diverse groups on our side including health, environmental, moms, environmental justice, teachers, and state attorneys general. EPA’s announcement this month is an incredibly important step, but there is more work to be done to ensure that all Americans can breathe cleaner, safer air.