Biden Administration Takes Action to Strengthen Health Standard for Soot Pollution

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule today that would tighten one national limit for soot pollution in the United States. It proposes to set the annual health standard for soot, otherwise known as fine particulate matter air pollution, or PM2.5, somewhere between 9-10 micrograms per cubic meter. That represents an improvement over the current standard set a decade ago—12 micrograms—but still would not adequately protect human health, according to the agency’s own scientific advisory committee and a new NRDC analysis of federal data. 

EPA also proposes to take public comment on a standard of 8 or 11 micrograms. The agency did not propose to strengthen the daily or 24-hour health standard. Both steps are departures from the recommendations of EPA’s expert science advisors, the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, which had said the agency should strengthen the 24-hour health standard, and tighten the annual standard to as low as 8 micrograms per cubic meter. 

Vijay Limaye, senior climate and health scientist at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) made the following statement: 

“This is a real improvement for public health. The proposed stronger standard would save up to 4,200 additional lives nationally each year, but this still leaves too many people dying. The country deserves a safer standard.   

“Legal limits on deadly air pollution are based on air quality monitoring data, and yet far too many counties don’t even have air quality monitors to track conditions on the ground. That leaves communities under-protected and national health standards under-enforced.  

  “Millions of Americans are still living in areas with unsafe levels of soot air pollution—and low- income communities and communities of color suffer disproportionately. EPA’s own data shows too many people suffering and even dying at the level of the proposed standards. So, the agency should adopt a safer annual and 24-hour health standards to help reduce longstanding health disparities. EPA also needs to strengthen and expand air quality monitoring to better quantify these harms nationwide.” 

Soot air pollution from car tailpipes, power plants and other fossil fuel activity seriously harms human health, damaging the heart, brain and cardiovascular system and causing premature deaths. Air pollution limits under the Clean Air Act help the country avoid 370,000 premature deaths annually. 

A new NRDC analysis of EPA air monitoring data finds, among other things: 

  • At least 57 million people live in areas with currently legal but still unhealthy levels of soot air pollution
  • 20.9 million people live in areas exceeding current Clean Air Act limits
  • More than 38 million people living in 107 counties with average soot levels modeled to be within proposed legal limits but still at unhealthy levels (ranging from 8-9 µg/m3); for 6.9 million of them, there is no direct soot monitoring happening in their counties; and,
  • 118 counties with unsafe soot pollution levels completely lack a monitor for directly assessing Clean Air Act compliance.  

EPA’s particulate matter air pollution health standards, once finalized, will be the law for at least another 5 years, before the Clean Air Act requires the agency to revisit standards.  

For more, here is a blog by Vijay Limaye, senior climate and health scientist at NRDC. 

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

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