After a Decade, Federal Officials Tighten Guidelines on Air Pollution

As a child, Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir remembers being taken from doctor to doctor by her parents as they searched desperately for a way to manage her asthma. She wondered then if there was something in the air that made it difficult for her to breathe.

Today, Lovinsky-Desir is a pediatric pulmonologist, using her childhood experience with asthma to inform her research into air pollution and how tiny particles, also known as PM 2.5, can impact young lungs.

“We really have to work towards improving air quality for the people who are at the greatest risk,” said Lovinsky-Desir, who teaches at Columbia University

Federal officials believe they are taking the next steps to do just that.

For the first time in a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed tougher standards for pollution from PM 2.5, small, inhalable airborne particles about one-thirtieth of the width of a human hair that are linked to a range of health harms, from heart and lung ailments to asthma and other respiratory conditions.

The EPA announced plans on Friday to lower the annual standard for PM 2.5 from a level of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter. Environmental activists, who have long urged the government to tighten its regulations, said the new proposal doesn’t go far enough in addressing the hazards from PM 2.5.

In a phone call, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said the new standard “will have lasting impact in communities all over, but especially those communities of color and low-income communities that experienced an increase in particulate matter pollution.”

“EPA’s actions today are deeply important and personal to me,” Regan said. “As indicated, I’ve spent my career advocating for health equity and environmental justice because no one should be sickened by the environment in which they live.”

Regan noted during the call that the federal standards for PM 2.5—what is commonly called soot pollution—have not been updated since 2012, after the Trump administration decided to keep the old standard. During the past decade, scientists have learned more about the potential adverse health effects related to particulate matter—one recent study even cited air pollution as a trigger for lung cancer in non-smokers

Environmental officials are seeking feedback from the general public on the proposal, and asking for comments on revising that level to as low as 8 and as high as 11 micrograms per cubic meter—which was detailed in a March 2022 report by the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.

EPA officials said changing the annual soot standard to 9 micrograms would prevent up to 4,200 premature deaths per year. The agency wants to maintain the current 24-hour PM 2.5 standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, but said they were considering revising the level to as low as 25 micrograms per cubic meter. They also proposed revising the Air Quality Index and monitoring requirements to “focus on communities with environmental justice concerns,” according to prepared materials.

But not all are happy with the Biden administration’s proposal.

“We’re disappointed,” said Paul Billings, national senior vice president of public policy for the American Lung Association. “This is an inadequate proposal that fails to follow the science and the Clean Air Act, and ignores the advice of the independent experts at the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.”

Billings said the committee recommended a range of 8 to 10 micrograms per cubic meter. The committee, he said, pointed out that “nine or lower is really important to protect communities of color and low-income communities.” 

The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee also recommended tightening the 24-hour standard to a range of 25 to 30. Billings said the committee found that the annual standard alone was not protective of all communities, which is why it called for strengthening the 24-hour standard. He said the EPA “chose to ignore that recommendation and is proposing to maintain the current 24-hour standard, which was last updated in 2006. “Which was before the iPhone was introduced,” Billings noted.

Billings also said the proposal was delayed and is “taking forever” to move forward. “Air pollution cleanup delayed is clean air denied and has real consequences for adverse health effects and premature death for thousands of people,” he said.

Yvonka Hall, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, said she was in a meeting with environmentalists when she heard that the EPA might not “do anything about soot.”

Hall said that a point of emphasis for her group was the “impact on the African-American community and the impact around health disparities and life disparities in our communities, particularly around environmental racism.”

“We have an opportunity to change that and for them to not make a stand, that’s very troubling,” she said.

Questions of equity, bias and environmental racism are at the heart of Lovinsky-Desir’s research. A child of Haitian immigrants, she said that many studies often lack the perspectives of those with low incomes and residents of large cities, including Black participants and other people of color.

Lovinsky-Desir served as co-author for a study published this month in The Lancet, which specifically focused on roughly 350 children with asthma in more than a half dozen American cities. The study found that air with higher soot and ozone levels was “significantly associated” with asthma attacks and lower pulmonary function.

“One of the things that I think is really important about this study is it not only sort of corroborates what we’ve known in terms of environmental air pollution exposure and the risk for asthma exacerbations in children, but it really digs in deep to some of the mechanisms that are underlying this relationship,” she said.

“This paper highlights that there is a whole group of kids who also are experiencing exacerbations, not just because of viruses, but because of environmental air pollution exposure,” added Lovinsky-Desir, who was recently appointed to the EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee.

The EPA could finalize an updated standard for PM 2.5 as soon as this summer. 

Khalil Savary, a pediatric pulmonologist in Newark, New Jersey, said the EPA’s proposal might eventually lower the standard for PM 2.5, but “is it going to be higher at the exhaust pipe compared to at the school? Could that change outcomes for one particular patient?”

“Probably not because vulnerable areas are still vulnerable regardless of national averages,” he said.

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Savary said once “you determine that it is an unsafe level of particulate matter, what happens next?”

“We’ve already seen this with lead and with asbestos and with all sorts of chemicals and, you know, harmful substances. You identify that it’s a problem. And then what do you do after that,” he asked.

Black children are four times and Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die of asthma. It’s a figure that sticks with Laura Esquivel.

Esquivel is the vice president of federal policy and advocacy for the Hispanic Federation and the mother of a child with asthma. “We have so much at stake right now in fixing this problem and addressing this problem and we just can’t wait,” she said.

“We will continue to advocate for the adoption of the strongest rule possible, grounded completely in science-based data,” she added. “It’s not just a matter of justice and equity. It’s a matter of life and death for our children.”

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                <img width="300" height="300" src="https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Screen-Shot-2022-04-18-at-11.26.11-AM-300x300.png" class="attachment-thumbnail-medium-square size-thumbnail-medium-square" alt="Victoria St. Martin" decoding="async" srcset="https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Screen-Shot-2022-04-18-at-11.26.11-AM-300x300.png 300w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Screen-Shot-2022-04-18-at-11.26.11-AM-150x150.png 150w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Screen-Shot-2022-04-18-at-11.26.11-AM-64x64.png 64w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Screen-Shot-2022-04-18-at-11.26.11-AM-600x600.png 600w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px">
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                    Victoria St. Martin                 </a>


                <h4 class="profile-subtitle">Health and Environmental Justice Reporter, Philadelphia</h4>

                Victoria St. Martin covers health and environmental justice at Inside Climate News. During a 20-year career in journalism, she has worked in a half dozen newsrooms, including The Washington Post where she served as a breaking news and general assignment reporter. Besides The Post, St. Martin has also worked at The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, The Trentonian, The South Bend Tribune and WNIT, the PBS-member station serving north central Indiana. In addition to her newsroom experience, St. Martin is also a journalism educator who spent four years as a distinguished visiting journalist with the Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. She currently teaches at the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University. St. Martin is a graduate of Rutgers University and holds a master’s degree from American University’s School of Communication. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and has written extensively about the prevalence of breast cancer in young women. In her work, St. Martin is particularly interested in health care disparities affecting Black women.

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