The Audacity to Breathe

Physicians and environmentalists sue to compel regulators to fix particulate pollution problems in the Los Angeles region.

A smoggy day in LA.
A smoggy day in Los Angeles, Calif. (Minuk/Flickr)

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Fine particulate pollution—often called PM 2.5—is dangerous. Given the grave consequences of this pollution, we would expect our air regulators to be chomping at the bit to protect us. Unfortunately, we’re not seeing the kind of response one would expect. In fact, in the face of knowledge that the greater Los Angeles region will not meet fine particulate standards set by the federal government by the end of 2015, California’s air regulators have taken the tact of hoping for lots of rain to reduce pollution levels, instead of actually figuring out ways to reduce air pollution from factories, trucks and other sources.

This strategy reminds me of a song I used to listen to with my grandmother on her turntable, I Wish It Would Rain by the Temptations. Although sadder than most songs by this group, it reached #1 on the Billboard R & B charts in 1968. But while this topic makes for compelling song lyrics, wishing for rain is not an effective strategy for cleaning up deadly air pollution. Luckily, Earthjustice is working with a tenacious coalition of physicians, environmentalists and youth to push back against this faulty strategy. 

The Coalition has come together because the Los Angeles region routinely tops the list for the most particulate-choked air in the nation. Exposure to fine particulates has been toughest on our most vulnerable populations of elderly people and children, especially those with lung or heart diseases. According to the EPA, exposure to fine particle matter in the air has been linked to premature death, heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function and increased respiratory symptoms. 

Today, represented by Earthjustice, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles and Sierra Club filed suit in federal court in Los Angeles against the federal EPA to compel compliance with the Clean Air Act’s mandates related to fine particulate pollution. 

Under the Clean Air Act, state and local governments develop plans to meet particulate pollution standards. These plans are submitted to EPA for approval. It is important for EPA to evaluate the plans because EPA can ask that the plans be fixed if there are flaws. EPA is dragging its feet on reviewing LA’s 2012 plan to control fine particulate pollution. This bureaucratic logjam prevents citizens from weighing in on the efficacy of the current plan to control this pollution. These groups know that the current plan is completely inadequate to protect elderly and youth because hoping for rain is not an effective strategy to meet clean air goals, and these groups will weigh into this effect. But, unfortunately, we cannot get to this discussion until EPA finishes its paperwork to process the plan. In light of the severe health consequences, it’s unclear why EPA is taking such a lackadaisical approach to processing paperwork. 

The coalition is taking these agencies to court to vindicate a simple premise: Residents in the region with the filthiest air in the nation should not be punished for having the audacity to breathe. These groups are seeking the nudge of a federal court to change EPA’s gear from neutral on finishing its paperwork.  

Based in Los Angeles, Adrian works on clean air, clean energy, and healthy communities issues as a deputy managing attorney for Earthjustice's Right to Zero campaign. Follow him on Twitter @LASmogGuy.