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Advocates Urge Stricter Standards For Particulate Pollution At EPA Hearing

May 22, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem

WASHINGTON – Advocates called on the Environmental Protection Agency to raise its standards on particle pollution — also known as soot or PM2.5 — at a public hearing on Thursday held by phone due to the coronavirus crisis.

In April, the EPA announced it did not plan on reviewing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter, alarming environmental activists and scientists who say the regulations need to be strengthened to protect public health.

Dozens of experts phoned in to testify on Thursday, including advocates from The Environmental Defense Fund and The Sierra Club, along with scientists from Harvard University and North Carolina State University.

“I am testifying today because the proposal to retain the current PM2.5 standard falls short of EPA’s charge to protect human health and the environment by blatantly ignoring the body of scientific evidence that clearly demonstrates the need for a more protective standard,” said Taylor Bacon, a fellow at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must conduct a “thorough review” of air quality standards every five years, though the agency can revise the regulations more frequently at the discretion of the administrator. 

Since the introduction of the law in 1970, the EPA has revised soot standards four times. The last revision was in 2012, when the agency lowered the annual threshold for PM2.5 from 15 to 12 micrograms per cubic meter. 

But experts say that threshold needs to be lowered even further to prevent thousands of premature deaths linked to diseases caused by air pollution.

“The health harms of fine particulate matter are far reaching, even below the current standard,” said Ananya Roy, senior EDF health scientist. “[Particle pollution] causes heart disease, diabetes, and lung cancer. It restricts the growth of children’s lungs, increases risk of asthma attacks; increases hospitalizations and emergency room visits; and eventually results in premature death.”

Environmental advocates say the EPA has loosened its grip on environmental regulation under the Trump administration. 

In 2017 and 2018, there were 15% more unhealthy air days than there were on average between 2013 and 2016, according to federal data. Despite that evidence, President Trump has repeatedly refuted the claim that America’s air quality has declined.

At the hearing on Thursday, some advocates offered testimony on the toll that particulate pollution has taken on their personal health. “I didn’t smoke, ate well, and was in the best shape of my life, but frequent exposure to poor ambient air quality had other plans for me,” said Catherine Fraser of Environment Texas. “Now, I take an inhaler 4 times a day — often more — to avoid wheezing and shortness of breath throughout the day.”

American particulate pollution was responsible for 107,000 premature deaths in 2011, costing the U.S. around $886 billion, according to a 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

That death toll is roughly equivalent to the number of people killed in U.S. car crashes each year, the study found. Particulate pollution is not evenly spread across America — PM2.5 levels are higher in dense cities, particularly along the East Coast. 

Coal-powered plants and car traffic are some of the biggest contributors to U.S. particulate pollution, though agriculture also plays a large role due to emissions from fertilizer and manure.

PM2.5 are tiny atmospheric particles that have a diameter of just 2.5 micrometers, making them invisible to the naked eye. The particles are just 3% of the size of the circumference of human hair, and can only be viewed with an electron microscope. 

The EPA is holding another hearing on particulate standards on Friday, and will hear additional testimony on May 27.

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