The Biden administration on Wednesday announced a new air quality standard that aims to prevent deadly illnesses linked to pollutants.
The rule cracks down on fine particulate matter – tiny particles in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs. Much of this air pollution comes from the combustion of gasoline, oil, diesel or wood, usually from sources such as factories, power plants, vehicles, forest fires or smokestacks.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that “a large and growing body of science” links particles to serious and sometimes fatal diseases.
Prolonged exposure may increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer and chronic kidney diseaseand may also be associated with an increased risk of neurological disorders. Short-term exposure may increase the risk of heart attack, asthma attacks either stroke. Both types of exposure are directly related to hospitalizations and deaths.
“It’s very clear that particles kill and make people sick,” said Laura Kate Bender, associate vice president of healthy air at the American Lung Association. “We have also seen over time that particles are more dangerous at lower levels than previously thought.”
Before Wednesday, the EPA said the annual concentration of particles within a state should not exceed 12 micrograms per cubic meter, calculated as an average over three years. The American Lung Association and other health organizations have pushed to lower that limit to 8 micrograms per cubic meter.
The new EPA standard comes close to that goal: It sets an annual threshold of 9 micrograms per cubic meter.
“It is a substantial change, a significant change. It’s definitely a win for public health,” said Francesca Dominici, a data scientist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
Lowering the threshold further would have a greater health benefit, he said, “but considering where we are now, I think it’s definitely a big step in the right direction.”
Bender said the new standard “is not as strong as the Lung Association had called for, but it will still save many lives.”
The EPA estimated that the new rule would prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths in the first year once states fully comply in 2032.
Dominici said the 4,500 estimate is based, in part, on his own research: His study 2020 found that reducing the air quality standard to 10 micrograms per cubic meter would save more than 143,000 lives over a decade.
The EPA also estimated that the new rule will generate up to $46 billion in health benefits, such as avoiding missed work days and avoiding emergency department visits.
Bender said that number is likely insufficient. “When it comes to all the health impacts of particle pollution, there’s not always a way to monetize it or put a number on it,” he said.
Scientists are still discovering the negative health effects of air pollution. Emerging evidence suggests that exposure to particles could impair cognitive function either accelerate cognitive decline. AND a study last year found that increased exposure to air pollutants during pregnancy could negatively affect the neurological development of the child after birth.
The EPA said in an analysis Wednesday that states probably won’t need to meet the new air quality standard until 2032, as it takes time to implement changes to reduce pollution levels. But according to Dominici, “there will be much more pressure to try to meet the new standard much sooner.”
Bender said the EPA will work with states to determine which counties do not meet the new standard and then develop cleanup plans that states can implement.
“It’s a long process, but it works,” he said. “We’ve seen it work over the years as communities have reduced harmful levels of pollution.”
Right now, the EPA predicts that 52 U.S. counties will not meet the new standard by 2032. Of those, 23 counties are in California. The list includes Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento.
Bender said California has faced “really significant air pollution challenges compared to the rest of the country.” cities in california dominated the American Lung Association ranking last year of the most polluted metropolitan areas in the US.
Wildfire smoke and traffic pollution are likely the biggest contributors to the problem, Dominici said.
“Due to climate change, wildfires are becoming more extreme and more frequent,” he said. “And we know that when there are wildfires, this level (of particles) can be very, very, very high.”
Hispanics, Asians and blacks also live in areas with higher annual concentrations of particulate matter, on average, according to the EPA analysis. This is because major sources of pollution, such as power plants, are often built in communities of color, and these areas may have limited resources to regulate emissions.
Dominici said Black and low-income people often have higher rates of chronic health problems like diabetes or heart disease, and more restricted access to quality health care. As a result, she said, “an additional increase in exposure to air pollution makes them sicker.”
His study last year found that reducing particle concentrations would have a greater impact on preventing deaths among low-income blacks and whites than among high-income whites.