EPA Proposes Stronger Regulation of Soot Pollution

Kids jump on a trampoline at a home near the Miller coal-fired power plant in Adamsville, Alabama
Kids jump on a trampoline at a home near the Miller coal-fired power plant in Adamsville, Alabama on April 11, 2021. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP via Getty Images
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Friday a proposed reduction of the allowable annual exposure to industrial soot pollution, and will solicit public comment before making a final decision this year.

EPA’s proposal would lower the annual PM2.5 limit from an average of 12 µg/m3 (set in 2012) to somewhere between 9 and 10 µg/m3, though EPA Administrator Michael Regan told reporters the EPA is still considering the possibility of setting it as low as 8 or as high as 11 µg/m3.

In December of 2020, the Trump administration rejected EPA’s findings that reducing the annual limit to 9 µg/m3 could save between 9,050 and 34,600 lives a year. The Biden EPA indicated on Friday it would not change the daily exposure limit, set in 2006, of 35 µg/m3, despite the agency’s advisory panel of scientists having urged reducing that limit to 25-30 µg/m3.

Soot, known technically as PM2.5 pollution (particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller, a thirtieth the diameter of a human hair) comes from many sources, like coal-burning power plants, diesel engines, and tobacco smoke, and is linked to a wide array of health harms including pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases.

PM2.5 pollution is dramatically and systemically worse in communities of color due to historic racist policies like redlining and present-day racism in the siting of polluting industries and is one of the deadliest air pollutants. NRDC’s Vijay Limaye said “the country deserves a safer standard” as the proposal is “a real improvement for public health,” but  doesn’t go far enough, and “still leaves too many people dying.”

As reported by The Washington Post:

Emissions of fine soot have been falling since the 1970s, in large part because of tougher car pollution standards and a nationwide shift away from burning coal for electricity. But it remains a significant health concern and, in recent years, researchers have found that long-term exposure to even low levels of soot is dangerous.

In a four-year-long study, researchers at the independent Health Effects Institute analyzed health data from 68.5 million older Americans across the nation. Their findings, published last year, showed that while many of the study’s participants were breathing in less soot pollution than the federally allowable limit, they still had a heightened risk of premature death. The study suggested that by lowering the soot standard slightly, the United States could prevent as many as 143,000 deaths over a decade.

For a deeper dive:

The Washington Post, E&E News, E&E News, AP, The New York Times, The Hill, CNN, The Hill, Los Angeles Times, Utility Dive, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, The Verge, NPR

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