Up to 35,700 premature deaths can be prevented in the United States every year if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strengthens the health standards for fine particulate matter—also known as soot—according to a new report, Sick of Soot: How the EPA Can Save Lives by Cleaning Up Fine Particle Pollution, prepared by the American Lung Association, Clean Air Task Force and Earthjustice.
Particle pollution does not just make people die a few days earlier than they might otherwise—these are deaths that would not have occurred if the air were cleaner.
(Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
Soot, technically known as PM2.5 (fine particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less), is generated by coal-fired power plants, diesel and other vehicles, agricultural burning, wood stoves and industrial combustion. Though the pollution particles in soot are tiny—1/30th the width of a human hair—they can have a huge impact on human health. Research links them to premature death, heart attacks, stroke, worsened asthma and possibly cancer and developmental and reproductive harm.
The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA set national air quality standards for soot at levels that protect public health with a margin of safety. To adequately protect children, seniors and people with lung disease, heart disease, and diabetes from these dangers, Sick of Soot shows that the EPA should tighten the current standard to an annual level of 11 μg/m3 coupled with a daily standard of 25 μg/m3 and a daily level of 25 μg/m3 coupled with a daily standard of 25 μg/m3.
Cleaning up the air to meet the standards outlined above could spare the nation every year from as many as:
- 35,700 premature deaths;
- 2,350 heart attacks;
- 23,290 visits to the hospital and emergency room;
- 29,800 cases of acute bronchitis;
- 1.4 million cases of aggravated asthma; and
- 2.7 million days of missed work or school due to air pollution-caused ailments.
The ten metropolitan areas that would benefit most are:
- Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA – prevents 4,230 premature deaths annually
- New York-Newark-Edison, NY-NJ-PA – prevents 3,290 premature deaths annually
- Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL-IN-WI – prevents 2,240 premature deaths annually
- Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD – prevents 1,550 premature deaths annually
- Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA – prevents 1,360 premature deaths annually
- Pittsburgh, PA – prevents 1,270 premature deaths annually
- Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI – prevents 970 premature deaths annually
- Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA – prevents 930 premature deaths annually
- Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH – prevents 780 premature deaths annually
- Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN – prevents 650 premature deaths annually
The economic benefits associated with reduced exposure to soot are estimated to reach as much as $281 billion annually.
Concern about the health impacts of soot pollution is the reason that today, Earthjustice—on behalf of the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense Fund and National Parks Conservation Association—petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to set a deadline for the EPA to issue stronger soot standards. In early 2009, the same court found that the EPA’s current soot standards did not adequately protect public health and ordered the agency to update them. In the nearly three years since that decision, however, the EPA has yet to propose any new standards. A coalition of 10 states filed a companion petition with the court today as well.
The estimates in Sick of Soot come from Health Benefits of Alternative PM2.5 Standards—a report prepared by Donald McCubbin, Ph.D., a recognized expert on the health benefits associated with reducing air pollution who developed the Environmental Benefits Mapping and Analysis Program (BenMAP) for the EPA. The analysis in this detailed report was developed using the BenMAP model, the same program that the EPA uses in its own analyses of air pollution standards.
Proposal Long Overdue
The Clean Air Act directs the EPA to review the national standards every five years by taking into account the latest scientific research to ensure public health is adequately protected. The EPA has failed to meet that deadline and the Lung Association, National Parks Conservation Association and Earthjustice have begun legal steps to require the EPA to complete the review.
Since 2006, when the EPA completed its last review, new scientific data have emerged that clearly indicate soot still poses a major threat to public health. The current standards of 15 μg/m3 coupled with a daily standard of 25 μg/m3 (annual) and 35 μg/m3 coupled with a daily standard of 25 μg/m3 (daily) fail to provide that protection and must be strengthened.
"The EPA has the legal responsibility to follow science and the law and protect all Americans from harm caused by soot pollution," said Janice Nolen, Assistant Vice President, National Policy and Advocacy for the American Lung Association. "Soot is the deadliest of the widespread air pollutants and poses a huge risk to people who suffer from lung and heart disease. Kids, seniors, asthmatics and other vulnerable populations deserve the strong standards recommended by Sick of Soot."
"The findings detailed in Sick of Soot go beyond EPA’s own analysis of this issue," said John Graham, Ph.D., a scientist at Clean Air Task Force. "We used more current air quality data and looked at the issue nationally, rather than just in the 15 urban areas that EPA typically examines. Because air quality has improved recently, the standards we are recommending should be easier for the nation to meet than might be predicted by the EPA’s modeling. It’s a win-win situation, and we hope the agency will strongly consider these findings as it makes its decision."
"Given the large number of lives at stake, it’s clear that the EPA needs to act now," said Earthjustice attorney, David Baron. "Unfortunately, the agency has refused to respond to a 2009 federal court finding that its current standards fall far short of what scientists and doctors say is necessary to protect the public’s health. It also just missed a five-year deadline for reviewing those deficient soot standards. The EPA needs to start moving in a different direction, and Sick of Soot points the way."
Download the report:
Sick Of Soot: How the EPA Can Save Lives by Cleaning Up Fine Particle Pollution (PDF)
About the American Lung Association
Now in its second century, the American Lung Association is the leading organization working to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease. With your generous support, the American Lung Association is “Fighting for Air” through research, education and advocacy. For more information about the American Lung Association, a Charity Navigator Four Star Charity and holder of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Guide Seal, or to support the work it does, call 1-800-LUNG-USA (1-800-586-4872) or visit www.Lung.org.
About Clean Air Task Force
Clean Air Task Force is a non-profit environmental organization with offices throughout the United States and in China that works to protect the earth’s atmosphere by improving air quality and reducing global climate change through scientific research, public advocacy, technological innovation and private sector collaboration. For more information please visit www.catf.us.
Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment.
Learn more at earthjustice.org.