EPA Favors Stricter Air Quality Standards

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to tighten the national annual limit on particulate matter (PM) pollution, according to its proposed updates to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for Fine Particulate Matter.

Part of the EPA’s plan is to lower the primary (health-based) annual PM2.5 standard down to 9.0-10.0 µg/m3, compared with the current cutoff of 12.0 µg/m3. The agency is also taking comments on the full range (8-11 µg/m3) included in the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee’s latest report.

However, existing primary and secondary (welfare-based) standards for inhalable airborne particles would be left unchanged:

  • Annual average secondary standard of 15.0 µg/m3 for PM2.5
  • 24-hour standards with 98th percentile forms and levels of 35 µg/m3 for PM2.5
  • 24-hour standards with one-expected exceedance forms and levels of 150 µg/m3 for PM10

Harold Wimmer, President and CEO of the American Lung Association, expressed disappointment in the EPA’s decision.

“Rather than actually proposing the science-based, most protective 8 µg/m3 annual level or the 25 µg/m3 24-hour level, EPA is only inviting comments on those protective levels. This falls far short of what is needed to meet the White House’s stated goals of furthering public health and environmental justice,” Wimmer said in a press release. “The Clean Air Act requires standards that are requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety. EPA must follow the law and strengthen both the annual and 24-hour standard to protect public health.”

“Particle pollution kills. It can cause breathing problems, asthma attacks and a host of other harms, from cardiovascular problems to lung cancer to fetal harm,” Wimmer noted. “Children, seniors, people with lung or heart disease and people who work outdoors are disproportionately at risk, as are people in low-income communities and many communities of color who are exposed to higher levels.”

The prevalence of asthma ranges from 4.3% to 12.1% across U.S. states and territories, according to CDC estimates from 2019. In 2021, asthma was more prevalent in the Northeast when compared to the Southern and Western regions, especially in small and medium metropolitan areas.

Air pollution is a risk factor for asthma, with those living in suburban areas having better health outcomes than those in cities. American-Indian or Alaska Natives, non-Hispanic Black individuals, and those with multiple, non-Hispanic racial backgrounds have been shown to be at greater risk of asthma when compared to their white, non-Hispanic counterparts.

“As a physician who’s passionate about oncology and dedicated to enhancing the health equity that’s so often needed in Black communities and other communities of color, I am grateful for the Biden Administration’s commitment to advancing equity and justice for all,” said Doris Browne, MD, MPH, former president of the National Medical Association, in an EPA press release.

“No one should be sickened by the environment they live in, and EPA’s proposal marks the start of changes that will have lasting impacts in communities all over, especially Black and brown communities that often experience increased PM pollution,” she said.

The EPA completed its last review of the PM NAAQS in 2012.

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    Elizabeth Short is a staff writer for MedPage Today. She often covers pulmonology and allergy & immunology. Follow

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