Biden Administration to Tighten Air Pollution Standards

FRIDAY, Feb. 9, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it is cracking down on air pollution.

Specifically, the agency introduced a tougher air quality standard that takes aim at fine particulate matter -- the tiny bits of pollution that can penetrate the lungs -- by lowering the allowable annual concentration of the deadly pollutant that each state can have.

“This final air quality standard will save lives and make all people healthier, especially within America’s most vulnerable and overburdened communities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in an agency news release announcing the change. “Cleaner air means that our children have brighter futures, and people can live more productive and active lives..."

The EPA noted that “a broad and growing body of science” links particulate matter to serious, and often deadly, illnesses such as lung cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, neurological disorders, asthma attacks and stroke. 

Reaction to the new standard was enthusiastic.

“The Biden administration is taking lifesaving action to protect people and rein in deadly pollution,” Abigail Dillen, president of the nonprofit law organization Earthjustice, said in the EPA news release. “The science is crystal clear. Soot, otherwise known as fine particle pollution, is a killer. It is driving heart disease, our asthma epidemic, and other serious illnesses. The people who suffer most are children and older Americans who live in communities of color and low-income communities.”

Other health advocates applauded the move.

“It’s very clear that particulate matter kills people and makes people sick,”  Laura Kate Bender, assistant vice president for healthy air at the American Lung Association, told NBC News. “We’ve also seen over time that particulate matter is more dangerous at lower levels than was previously realized.”

Before the new air quality standard was announced, the allowable annual concentration of particulate matter within a state could not exceed 12 micrograms per cubic meter. However, the American Lung Association and other health groups have called for that limit to be lowered to 8 micrograms per cubic meter.

The EPA’s new standard hews more closely to that tougher standard: It sets an annual threshold of 9 micrograms per cubic meter.

“It is a substantial change, a meaningful change. It’s definitely a victory for public health,” Francesca Dominici, a data scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told NBC News.

Bender added that the new standard is “not as strong as the Lung Association had called for, but nevertheless, it’s going to save a lot of lives.”

Just how many lives could be saved? 

The EPA estimated that the new standard would prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths in the first year the new standard is fully enforced; states won't need to meet the tougher limit until 2032.

The agency also noted that the lower limit will yield up to $46 billion in health benefits by lowering the number of lost workdays and reducing emergency room visits. 

Bender said that figure is likely an undercount.

"When it comes to all of the health impacts of particle pollution, there’s not always a way to monetize it or to put a number on it," she said.

The EPA estimates that 52 counties across the U.S. will miss the mark. Of those, 23 are in California. 

Bender noted that California has faced "really significant air pollution challenges compared to the rest of the country.” 

Wildfire smoke and traffic pollution are likely the main contributors to California's problem, Dominici said.

“Because of climate change, wildfires are becoming more extreme and more frequent," she explained. "And we do know that when there are wildfires, this level of [particulate matter] can go very, very, very high."

More information

The American Lung Association has more on particulate matter.

SOURCES: Environmental Protection Agency, news release, Feb. 8. 2024; NBC News, Feb. 8, 2024

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