EPA announces new air quality standards for particulate matter, citing health risks

The announcement marks the first update to the standards in 12 years.

February 7, 2024, 8:00 AM

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new rule on Wednesday to significantly reduce the level of air pollution known as particulate matter (PM) by updating the national air-quality standards, citing negative health impacts of PM exposure.

While the rule is being praised by environmental and health groups, some industry groups have signaled that it could pose a political challenge for President Joe Biden this year as they claim it will hamper American manufacturing and eliminate jobs.

“Today's action is a critical step forward that will better protect workers, families and communities from the dangerous and costly impacts of fine particle pollution,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan told reporters.

“The science is clear, soot pollution is one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution and it's linked to a range of serious and potentially deadly illnesses, including asthma and heart attacks.”

PHOTO: A dozer creates fire line around a  brush fire dubbed the Highland fire, burning along Highway 371, Oct. 31, 2023, in Aguanga, Calif.
A dozer creates fire line around a brush fire dubbed the Highland fire, burning along Highway 371, Oct. 31, 2023, in Aguanga, Calif.
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Particulate matter is made up of microscopic solid particles such as dirt, soot or smoke and liquid droplets in the air that are small enough to be inhaled. Those small particles can get into the lungs or bloodstream and contribute to health problems like asthma, respiratory symptoms, heart attacks, or premature death in people with heart or lung problems, according to the EPA.

This type of pollution comes from a variety of sources including power plants, cars, and construction sites. Wildfire smoke is also a significant source of particulate matter pollution.

“We know that particulate matter in the outside air leads to death. It kills people,” Patrice Simms, vice president of litigation for healthy communities at Earthjustice, told ABC News.

“And often that is a product of triggering heart attack, cardiopulmonary events or triggering asthma attacks that are fatal,” Simms said.

Regan said the updated standard will prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays in the year 2032. On that same timeline, Biden administration officials also say the new standard will yield up to $46 billion in net health benefits.

“The impact of this pollution oftentimes disproportionately affects our most vulnerable communities, including low-income communities, communities of color, children, older adults and those who struggle with heart or lung conditions,” Regan said.

Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Michael Stanley Regan speaks during the anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) Event at the White House, Aug. 16, 2023.
Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“Each one of these events — whether it's someone's death or hospitalization or heart attack or asthma attack — are traumatic experiences for the individuals,” Simms said. “They can be traumatic experiences for families and destabilizing for both families and communities.”

“There are both things that you can calculate numerically about what are the impacts [of PM pollution] and how many deaths and how many hospitalizations, but there also are really important kinds of impacts that are hard to quantify," he added.

The previous annual standard for particulate matter was 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Under this new rule, the EPA is lowering the annual standard to 9 micrograms per cubic meter.

The updated rules do not revise the 24-hour standard which is meant to account for short-term spikes in pollution. That will remain at 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

President and CEO of the American Lung Association Harold Wimmer called the update “a step forward for public health,” but noted that the standards fall short of what his organization and others called for.

“While the stronger annual particle pollution standard will mean fewer asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and deaths, it is disappointing that EPA did not follow the strong science-based recommendations of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the health community to also revise the 24-hour standard to more fully protect public health,” Wimmer added.

Afternoon traffic on I-15 looking South from Jurupa overhead bridge towards 60 freeway. I-15, Jan. 31, 2024, in Ontario, Calif.
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Industry groups like the American Forest & Paper Association, American Wood Council and the group’s member company CEOs sent a letter to the White House in October expressing their opposition to the now finalized rule, saying the move, “threatens U.S. competitiveness and modernization projects in the U.S. paper and wood products industry and in other manufacturing sectors across our country.”

“This would severely undermine President Biden’s promise to grow and reshore U.S. manufacturing jobs, and ultimately make American manufacturing less competitive,” the letter said. “It also would harm an industry that has been recognized as an important contributor to achieving the Administration’s carbon reduction goals, including in future procurement for federal buildings.”

Simms, who has worked in this space for 25 years, told ABC News these industry outcries aren’t new.

“I've been doing this work for 25 years in a variety of different capacities,” Simms said. “And I can say that every time that an agency like EPA has taken steps to protect people and to reduce pollution, I see this same playbook start to get utilized, which is ‘the sky is falling.’ ‘If we protect people this way, we're going to destroy business and we're going to undermine the economy.’ And there's really good data to show that that's just not true.”

“We do not have to sacrifice people to have a prosperous and booming economy,” Regan said.

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