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EPA proposes new standard to cut soot emissions

Air pollution around a highway in downtown Los Angeles
Ali Azimi
Creative Commons
Smog and air pollution around downtown Los Angeles.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new proposal today to cap soot emissions at between 12 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) annually. The current standard is 15 µg/m3 annually. The agency is required to update the standard every five years.

In a press release from the American Lung Association, Albert Rizzo, M.D., chair of the board of the ALA, emphasized the dangers of soot.

"Particle pollution kills — the science is clear, and overwhelming evidence shows that particle pollution at levels currently labeled as officially 'safe' causes heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks," Rizzo said. "The Clean Air Act gives the American public the truth about pollution that is threatening their lives and health—just as they would expect the truth from their doctor," he added.

Last year the ALA, the Clean Air Task Force and Earthjustice, a non-profit public interest law firm, released a report warning of the dangers of soot and urging the EPA to set stricter emissions standards.

Their analysis estimated that capping emissions at 11 µg/m3 annually and 25 µg/m3 daily would prevent:

  • 35,700 premature deaths
  • 2,350 heart attacks
  • 23,290 hospital and emergency room visits
  • 29,800 cases of acute bronchitis
  • 1.4 million cases of aggravated asthma

According to the report, these standards would save about $281 billion in medical costs annually.

Using air quality data from 2007-2009, the report found that major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland and Cincinnati will benefit most from stricter standards.

The EPA says its proposed standard could save an estimated $30 to $86 for every dollar spent on pollution control.  The agency estimates that about 99 percent of U.S. counties would already meet the new standards due to the economic downturn and recent steps to reduce emissions like greater fuel efficiency.

The Associated Press reports not everyone is on board with the new proposal:

Congressional Republicans and industry officials called the rules overly strict and said they could hurt economic growth and cause job losses in areas where pollution levels are determined to be too high. "EPA's proposal could substantially increase costs to states, municipalities, businesses and ultimately consumers without justified benefits," said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, the top lobbying group for the oil and gas industry.

Diesel vehicles and coal-burning power plants are the largest sources of soot. The sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from these sources interact with other chemicals in the atmosphere and combine with liquid droplets, forming particulate matter known as PM2.5.

Because soot particles are so small — 1/30th the size of a human hair — they travel deep into the lungs, where they aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases.  High soot exposure can also cause developmental and reproductive problems, cardiovascular problems, heart attacks or even death.

For 63 days after the proposed standard is published in the Federal Registry, the EPA will be open to public comments. There will also be public hearings in Sacramento, CA and Philadelphia, PA. A final standard will be set by December 14.

- Suzanne Jacobs, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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