We Can All Breathe Easier Thanks to the EPA's Updated Soot Standard

Most of us have loved ones whose quality of life is diminished or even endangered by breathing dirty air. My son-in-law has asthma, several family members suffer from heart disease, and I had breast cancer. Each one of these conditions can be exacerbated by air pollution, including something commonly known as soot.

Soot is made up of fine particulate matter released from coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, diesel engines, and cars and trucks. This particulate matter can lodge deep in the lungs and do lasting damage to our respiratory and cardio-vascular systems. Some of the chemicals in soot—polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—have also been shown to cause mammary tumors in rats.

Soot poses major health threats, but today Americans can breathe easier. The Environmental Protection Agency released updated soot standards that will lower our exposure to this dangerous air pollution, save thousands of lives, and avoid many thousands of asthma attacks, heart attacks, and strokes every year.

That means all our family members who are vulnerable to these health problems now have an extra layer of protection from dirty polluters. And it means people living in Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, New York, and the other top 10 metropolitan areas identified by the American Lung Association stand to benefit the most.  

It should come as no surprise that Americans overwhelmingly applaud EPA action. A November poll of registered voters conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the American Lung Association found that people support stricter limits on soot by a better than 2-1 margin. This support crosses party, racial, gender, and geographic lines.

It also extends to the medical community. The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Thoracic Society, American Health Association and National Association of County and City Health Officials, and several other organizations have called for stronger protections against soot.

And yet the American Petroleum Institute—the lobbying giant of oil corporations—and other dirty industries tried to fight the EPA’s stricter standard. They claimed that it isn’t the right time to reduce soot pollution. These companies may not want to invest in cleaning up their pollution just now, but it is always the right time to save the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Besides, if the EPA did not release stricter soot standards, it would be in violation of the law. The previous soot standard was set back in 1997 at 15 micrograms per cubic meter. In 2006, the Bush Administration reviewed the standard and decided not to strengthen it—even though scientific evidence showed that 15 micrograms did not protect human health.

A federal court tossed the Bush standard out in 2009 and ordered the EPA to conduct their next review of soot standards by 2011. That review prompted the agency to issue a stronger standard that will protect more people from the hazards of soot. 

This new soot standard is an excellent example of the Obama Administration honoring what science and the law dictate.  For over 40 years the Clean Air Act has required the EPA to determine how much air pollution is unhealthy for Americans to breathe and to set clean air standards for pollution. The Obama Administration did that for mercury last year and now for soot.

Next it must do the same for carbon pollution. It causes serious health risks by raising temperatures, increasing smog, and contributing to increasingly extreme weather.  The Supreme Court has twice confirmed the EPA had the authority and responsibility to curb carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act.  The Obama administration has issued landmark standards to cut that pollution from our vehicles.  Earlier this year, EPA proposed carbon limits for new power plants, but it must now set limits for America’s largest source of carbon existing power plants. Last week, NRDC released a flexible and cost-effective way for the agency to achieve this critical goal.   These standards will also be a big step towards attaining the new soot standards issued today, by cutting hundreds of thousands of tons of soot-forming sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen. 

The Clean Air Act grants Americans the right to clean air. The updated soot standards help deliver that. Now the administration should build on this success and issue carbon limits. Together, these safeguards would protect the health and well-being of millions of Americans.

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