Biden proposes stricter limits on lethal soot air pollution

Seen from the window of an Amtrak train, smoke billows from power plants alongside the tracks in Northern Virginia.

Andrea Lichtenstein | Corbis Historical | Getty Images

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday proposed a rule that would tighten federal limits on carbon black, one of the country’s deadliest air pollutants that disproportionately affects the health of low-income and minority communities.

The proposal is the Biden administration’s latest move to better address environmental justice and air pollution. Research shows that exposure to fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, leads to heart attacks, asthma attacks and premature death. Studies have also linked long-term exposure to carbon black to higher death rates from Covid-19.

Communities of color are systematically exposed to higher concentrations of black carbon and other air pollutants because they are more likely to be near highways, oil and gas wells, and other industrial sources.

The EPA proposal aims to limit pollution from industrial fine carbon black particles – which are less than 2.5 microns in diameter – from the current 12 micrograms per cubic meter per year to a level between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter, like the EPA announced is based on the latest health data and scientific knowledge. However, officials said they are also considering public comments on annual levels as low as 8 micrograms per cubic meter and as high as 11 micrograms per cubic metre.

The Trump administration had declined to tighten existing Obama-era rules set in 2012, despite warnings from EPA scientists it could save thousands of US lives

“The 2012 standards are no longer sufficient,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan told reporters during a Thursday briefing. “This government is committed to ensuring that all people have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and the opportunity to live healthy lives.”

If the proposal is finalized, a stricter annual PM 2.5 standard at levels of 9 micrograms per cubic meter – the lower end of the agency’s proposed range – would prevent up to 4,200 premature deaths per year and result in net health of up to $43 billion in lead benefits in 2032, according to the EPA.

Some public health advocates criticized the proposed standards for not going far enough. Paul Billings, senior vice president of the American Lung Association, said black carbon standards need to be lowered to an annual protective level of 8 micrograms per cubic meter to best protect public health.

“Eliminating deadly particles is critical to protecting public health,” Billings said. “Failing to set standards at the protection levels that public health organizations are demanding would result in harm to health that could have been avoided and would miss a crucial opportunity to meet President Biden’s environmental justice commitments.”

Air pollution shortens average global life expectancy by more than two years, according to the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute. Sixty percent of particulate matter air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, while 18% comes from natural sources such as dust, sea salt and wildfires, and 22% from other human activities.

PM 2.5 particles can be emitted directly from the source, including construction sites, dirt roads, fields or chimneys, or form in the atmosphere as a result of reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted by industrial power plants are facilities and vehicles, according to an EPA bulletin.

Industries such as oil and gas companies and automakers have long opposed a stricter soot pollution standard. During the Trump administration, a number of industry groups argued against scientific evidence on the public health effects of PM 2.5 exposure, urging the government to keep the existing standard.

The EPA will accept public comments for 60 days after the proposal is published in the Federal Register. The agency is expected to publish a final rule by August.

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