A court settlement announced today between the US Environmental Protection Agency and a coalition of environmental and public health groups offers the prospect of improved air quality standards across the country. In the settlement, EPA has agreed to a schedule for reviewing national standards for soot (particles) and smog (ozone) and strengthening them if appropriate in light of recent scientific evidence.
The air quality standards to be reviewed were set in 1997, in response to data showing that the previous standards were inadequate to protect public health and welfare. The Clean Air Act requires that these health-based standards be reviewed — and as appropriate, revised — every five years to ensure that they reflect the latest scientific research.
“Soot and smog cause the most widespread public health damage of any air pollutants, for example by aggravating respiratory ailments such as asthma and chronic bronchitis. Tellingly, each year soot is responsible for more deaths than highway accidents or homicides,” said Howard Fox of Earthjustice. “It is crucial that we continue to update public health safeguards according to the latest medical research about the dangers of these pollutants.”
Of particular concern is the standard for short-term exposure to soot or particulate matter. Soot pollution is currently held to both an annual average as well as a daily average. Public health advocates point to scientific evidence showing that the daily average is too lenient and still allows for short-term spikes drastic enough to cause premature death.
“Over the past five years, new research has shown that even short term exposure to particulate pollution can be dangerous for some people, particularly the elderly, young children and people with asthma and other serious lung diseases,” said John L. Kirkwood, President and CEO of the American Lung Association. “These new data need to be taken into account to adequately protect public health. That’s why the mandatory five-year review is so critical.”
Particulate matter has been linked to a variety of heart and lung ailments, leading to premature deaths, hospitalizations, emergency room visits, respiratory symptoms, and missed work and school days. The elderly and the young are especially vulnerable to these profound health effects. Ozone (smog) has been associated with asthma attacks, reductions in lung function, coughing, shortness of breath, increased susceptibility to respiratory infection, and pulmonary inflammation. Those with preexisting respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic bronchitis, the young, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the effects of ozone pollution.
“We simply want the Agency to move forward towards cleaner air and improved public health as fast as possible,” said Ann Weeks of the Clean Air Task Force, which represented regional groups in the lawsuit.
“The best medical research available today clearly points to a serious health risk from exposure to sooty fine particles and smog, two types of air pollution that are especially dangerous to young children and the elderly,” added Dr. John Balbus, a physician who heads the environmental health program at Environmental Defense. “Policies to protect the air we breathe must be based on the best available scientific research and the goal of this settlement is to guarantee that the nation’s air quality standards do in fact protect public health.”
The proposed settlement was filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia (Docket No. 03-778 ESH).
Notice of Lodging
60-day Notice Letter
Fine Particle Fact Sheet