Public health and environmental groups today filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for refusing to strengthen a nearly decade old national public health standard for particulate matter (PM) pollution to a level that could prevent thousands of premature deaths every year. Earthjustice filed the suit on behalf of the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense, and the National Parks Conservation Association.
The suit stems from the EPA’s October decision to reject the advice of its own scientific advisory panel and its own staff scientists. The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee recommended strengthening the existing annual standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter for fine particulate matter — originally set in 1997 — to between 13 and 14 micrograms per cubic meter. The American Lung Association, American Medical Association, American Thoracic Society and American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, all urged tightening the annual standard to protect children, the elderly, and others from the major health risks caused by PM pollution.
“EPA has failed in one of its fundamental responsibilities—to protect public health,” said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for the American Lung Association. “Millions of Americans will suffer unnecessarily — even face an earlier death — because they breathe this pollution. EPA could have and should have done better.”
Airborne particulate matter (PM) is comprised of tiny particles of smoke, soot, metals and other chemical compounds emitted from sources like power plants, factories, and diesel trucks. Scientists say PM, which can travel deep into our lungs, is one of the most toxic forms of air pollution. They estimate that PM is responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths nationwide every year. It is linked to aggravation of respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, chronic obstructive lung disease, and pneumonia; it is also linked to premature deaths from other causes, such as lung cancer and heart disease.
“Particulate matter pollution is a major health threat and the evidence is stronger than ever,” said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. “But the EPA refuses to follow the advice of leading doctors, scientists and health advocates who say the standard won’t protect public health. We say the public deserves better under the Clean Air Act.”
“Unfortunately, the EPA ignored its own science advisory committee, it ignored the American Medical Association, and it ignored its bedrock duty under the Clean Air Act to protect public health from harmful air pollution,” said Vickie Patton, a senior attorney with Environmental Defense and a former attorney in the EPA’s General Counsel’s office.
The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to adopt primary air quality standards for particulate matter pollution to protect public health and secondary standards to protect public welfare, including visibility. The EPA must review these standards every five years and revise them based on the latest scientific information.
“Anyone who questions the need to lower particulate matter pollution standards should take a hike in Great Smoky Mountains or Sequoia national parks in August,” said Mark Wenzler, director of the Clean Air Program for the National Parks Conservation Association. “You will likely encounter a haze so thick you can barely see the next ridge. Imagine what that pollution is doing to your lungs.”
The EPA’s refusal to consider the advice of doctors and scientists means Americans are being forced to breathe dirty air, the groups contend. Earlier this month, the agency decided it would scrap procedures that have been in place for the last 25 years in setting these standards in favor of a new process that limits the role of scientists and doctors.
Read the complaint (PDF)
Comments by public health and environmental groups on proposed PM standard revisions – April 2006 (large PDF)