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Tell EPA to Set Strong Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter

Susan Eastwood

March 2023

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a weak update to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for Particulate Matter (PM2.5 or soot), published January 23, 2023. 


Comments on this important matter will be accepted until March 28, 2023 in Docket Number: EPA-HQ-OAR-2015-0072.


Soot (or PM2.5) is a dangerous pollutant that is produced by power plants, vehicle tailpipes and other industrial sources, and threatens our health and environment. Even tiny particles can lodge in the lungs and cause serious illness and death. Inhalation of soot pollution may lead to chronic illnesses like asthma, COPD, cancer, heart attacks, stroke, dementia, and higher rates of preterm birth and infant mortality. Children are particularly vulnerable.


According to the American Lung Association, 63 million Americans experience unhealthy spikes in daily soot, or particle pollution, and more than 20 million Americans experience dangerous levels of soot pollution on a year-round basis.


The NAAQS include both annual standards, which set a health-based limit of pollution exposure in a year, and 24-hour standards, which set a health-based limit for pollution exposure within a single day. Right now, the NAAQS allows an annual soot standard of 12.0 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3). The EPA has proposed to strengthen the annual standard to a range of 9-10 μg/m3, which falls short of the most protective standards (8 μg/m3) advised by the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). 


The 24-hour soot standard is set at 35 µg/m3 of air for 24-hour concentrations. EPA’s January 2023 proposal makes no changes to the 24-hour standard, failing to follow the CASAC’s recommendation that the 24-hour standard be strengthened to between 25-30 µg/m3. This is a real slap in the face to those who need to know the truth about daily air quality conditions before they can venture outside. 


We all deserve to know when poor air quality is putting us at risk. Air quality warnings are intended to advise us when to take caution when working outside on a hot day, for example. But, if the standards are set too low, as now, the warning becomes useless. Americans deserve better. Exposure to high levels of particle matter for even one day can cause lasting damage to lungs, hearts, and brains, even in developing fetuses. 


All of us deserve to breathe clean air! However, we do not have control over air quality and, unfortunately, many of us do not have clean air to breathe. The worst air quality is found in areas where there are multiple sources of air pollution, such as coal-fired power plants, incinerators, and some types of manufacturing. These facilities are often found in communities of color or low income, leading to a concentration of illnesses and deaths in environmental justice communities where these sources are often cited.


If the strongest standards are put in place, it is estimated to save 20,000 lives a year. Think about all the lives that could be saved or improved, the jobs kept, all the medical costs saved and so many more benefits for our society from cleaner air.


Connecticut has an air quality rating of F, one of the poorest grades in the country. The capital city, Hartford, is one of the top 100 U.S. cities ranked by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America as most challenging to live with asthma. As in many urban areas, poverty and a disproportionate share of polluting facilities combine to make the air even more unhealthy. We live in Windham County, which is quite rural. Although the air quality is better than many urban areas in the state, Windham County has a D rating for High Ozone Days. There is no monitoring for PM2.5 in the two most eastern counties, Windham, and Tolland. 


Another crucial reason to strengthen these standards is to help combat climate change. Soot is a dangerous pollutant that is produced by power plants, cars, trucks, and other industrial sources. Burning fossil fuels contributes to the warming of the planet as well as to soot pollution. The emissions include black carbon, which is second greatest contributor to climate change after CO2. Strengthening the NAAQS soot standards will drive clean up of pollution sources nationwide and will not only save thousands of lives, but will help to combat climate change.


Take Action!

I submitted testimony urging the EPA to strengthen the PM2.5 standards to an annual standard of 8 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) and a daily standard of 25-30 µg/m3. These levels are recommended by the EPA’s own scientists and will help to reduce the particulate matter in our air and improve the health of millions. 


Here are some background resources and links to submit your own comments:

From Sierra Club - Submit a comment to EPA Administrator Regan: Soot pollution is too dangerous to take lightly. Finalize stronger standards! 

From EPA - Reconsideration of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter 

Susan Eastwood is Chapter Chair of Sierra Club Connecticut.

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