American Lung Association Calls for Tougher Soot Limits

Up to 35,700 premature deaths can be prevented in the United States every year if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strengthens the health standards for fine particulate matter—also known as soot—according to a new report, Sick of Soot: How the EPA Can Save Lives by Cleaning Up Fine Particle Pollution, prepared by the American Lung Association, Clean Air Task Force, and Earthjustice.

Soot, technically known as PM2.5 (fine particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less), is generated by coal-fired power plants, diesel and other vehicles, agricultural burning, wood stoves, and industrial combustion. Though the pollution particles in soot are tiny—1/30th the width of a human hair—they can have a huge impact on human health. Research links them to premature death, heart attacks, stroke, worsened asthma, and possibly cancer and developmental and reproductive harm.

The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA set national air quality standards for soot at levels that protect public health with a margin of safety. To adequately protect children, seniors, and people with lung disease, heart disease, and diabetes from these dangers, Sick of Soot shows that the EPA should tighten the current standard to an annual level of 11 μg/m3 and a daily level of 25 μg/m3.

According to the report, cleaning up the air to meet the standards outlined above could spare the nation every year from as many as:

  • 35,700 premature deaths;
  • 2,350 heart attacks;
  • 23,290 visits to the hospital and emergency room;
  • 29,800 cases of acute bronchitis;
  • 1.4 million cases of aggravated asthma; and
  • 2.7 million days of missed work or school due to air pollution-caused ailments.

The report says the ten metropolitan areas that would benefit most are:

1. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif.

2. New York-Newark-Edison, N.Y., N.J., Pa.

3. Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, Ill., Ind., Wis.

4. Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, Penn., N.J., Del., Md.

5. Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, Calif.

6. Pittsburgh, Pa.

7. Detroit-Warren-Livonia, Mich.

8. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, Ga.

9. Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, Ohio

10. Cincinnati-Middletown, Ohio, Ky., Ind.

Concern about the health impacts of soot pollution is the reason that Earthjustice—on behalf of the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense Fund and National Parks Conservation Association—recently petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to set a deadline for the EPA to issue stronger soot standards. In early 2009, the same court found that the EPA's current soot standards did not adequately protect public health and ordered the agency to update them. In the nearly three years since that decision, however, the EPA has not proposed any new standards. A coalition of 10 states filed a companion petition with the court today as well.

The estimates in Sick of Soot come from Health Benefits of Alternative PM2.5 Standards—a report prepared by Donald McCubbin, Ph.D., who developed the Environmental Benefits Mapping and Analysis Program (BenMAP) for EPA. The analysis in this report was developed using the BenMAP model, the same program that the EPA uses in its own analyses of air pollution standards.

"The EPA has the legal responsibility to follow science and the law and protect all Americans from harm caused by soot pollution," said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president, National Policy and Advocacy for the American Lung Association. "Soot is the deadliest of the widespread air pollutants and poses a huge risk to people who suffer from lung and heart disease. Kids, seniors, asthmatics, and other vulnerable populations deserve the strong standards recommended by Sick of Soot."

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