The U.S. strengthened its air quality standards for deadly soot pollution for the first time in more than a decade in a move praised by public health groups.
The Environmental Protection Agency set new maximum levels of fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5 — which comes from vehicle exhausts and other industrial sources, and is a known risk-factor for diseases including heart disease, cancer, and asthma — to 9 micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from 12 micrograms. The EPA said that implementation could prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays, yielding $46 billion in net health benefits by 2032.
The new air quality standard “will save lives and make all people healthier, especially within America’s most vulnerable and overburdened communities,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. Industry groups were disappointed, arguing that the new rules would harm business.
Air pollution disproportionately affects vulnerable communities
Soot from highways, industrial facilities, and incinerators have typically been built in communities that are predominantly black, Latino, and Asian American: Many are “forced to live in neighborhoods that are less expensive and more polluted,” a director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health told Scientific American.
A Los Angeles Times analysis found that although health officials recommend living at least 1,000 feet away from a freeway, the city continued to issue building permits and public funds are going to developers who build near pollution hotspots, spurring a rise in emergency room visits for respiratory issues. “These kids will come in four, five, six times over a six-month period, clearly their environment is a factor,” one doctor from a hospital located in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino district in Los Angeles, told the newspaper.
Air quality is a deadly global problem
In 2022, only 13 countries and regions met the World Health Organization’s guidelines for healthy air quality with annual PM 2.5 levels at or below 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air, according to Swiss tech firm IQAir.
“You get tired as soon as you wake up because of the pollution,” one interviewee told the BBC about India’s toxic air, which kills more than one million people annually. In New Delhi, the government has instituted “odd-even” rules for vehicles on roads to curb emissions, but the policy has been more effective at decongesting roads than bringing down pollution.
Meanwhile in China, the amount of harmful particulates in the air fell 40% between 2013 to 2020 due to restrictions on car-use and coal-burning. Its success is a “strong indication of the opportunities that could lie ahead for other nations if they were to impose strong pollution policies,” said a policy researcher from the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute.
Some US states and businesses have a long way to become compliant
The EPA projects that 99% of U.S. counties will meet the new PM 2.5 standards by 2032. Of the 52 counties that they think won’t, half are in California. Officials in the state say they need more federal help to meet the rules. One lobbyist for the California Chamber of Commerce told CalMatters the measures could create “a gridlock” for new manufacturing activities and jobs. But the outlet noted that under the U.S. Clean Air Act, the EPA must fix its standards based strictly on the latest scientific evidence, which shows the damaging and potentially deadly health impact of soot pollution.