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The Biden administration must take a tougher stance on soot pollution

The danger from soot pollution is well documented — the tiny pollutants spewed by power plants, factories and cars cause between 85,000 and 200,000 deaths each year in the United States. The Biden administration recently announced a plan to impose tougher standards on soot to protect public health. But this plan, unfortunately, falls short of what’s needed. Scientific studies, and the government’s own data, suggest the administration must go even further to save more lives and avoid more illnesses.

Before finalizing the standard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should strengthen its proposal to avoid needless deaths and improve the quality of life for millions of Americans who suffer health problems from soot pollution.

The public health ramifications of failing to properly limit exposure to soot are enormous. Soot is a mix of tiny liquid and solid particles suspended in the air we breathe. Its small size means it can easily enter the bloodstream and lungs and cause a wide range of serious health issues. Scientists have linked soot exposure to heart attacks, heart disease, strokes, lung disease, aggravated asthma symptoms, as well as infant and adult death.

To protect the public from the danger soot and other types of air pollution pose to human health, the federal government sets standards that limit how much soot can be present in the air. The EPA is required to review these standards every six years, and since 1971, the standards have been strengthened when scientific findings and public health needs have called for updates.

The last time the soot standards were reviewed was under President Donald Trump, and his administration ignored findings from scientists inside and outside of the EPA. Those scientific findings showed that the standards established in 2012 were no longer sufficient. But the Trump administration decided to maintain limits that dismissed the latest evidence and had the potential to cause “avoidable premature deaths.”

The Biden administration’s EPA took a step in the right direction in January by releasing a proposal to lower the current limit from an annual average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to a level between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter. It would also leave unchanged the existing daily exposure limit of 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

But the science says that’s not enough. Data from both outside experts and the EPA’s own scientists show the new standard must be lower than 9 micrograms per cubic meter annually to offer adequate protection. In its Regulatory Impact Analysis, the EPA reports that based on available evidence, lowering the standard to 8 micrograms per cubic meter would prevent five times as many deaths – up to 12,000 per year. The same is true for other types of serious, non-fatal health complications like strokes, heart attacks, cases of lung cancer and asthma attacks. The bottom line is that stronger standards save more lives and avoid more illness.

And the benefits for communities overburdened by air pollution like soot would be even greater. Due to years of racist redlining and segregation, Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities are 3.6 times more likely to live in areas with unsafe air quality than their white counterparts. They are far more likely to suffer from preexisting conditions, like obesity and hypertension, that exacerbate the health problems caused by soot inhalation.

These doubly at-risk communities need the strongest possible limits on soot. As the EPA notes in its own analysis, disparities in exposure decrease as the limits become increasingly more stringent. Tougher standards are needed to protect communities of color and reverse a toxic legacy of unequal exposure to soot. 

The health of natural resources and food systems are also at risk if the EPA fails to properly limit soot levels. In addition to considering the health of people, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to take into account impacts on the public welfare, including the ecosystem, animals, crops, soil, water, vegetation, weather, visibility and property.

Time and time again, soot has been linked to haze, the acidification of rivers and lakes, acid rain and even global warming — thus making it a huge threat to our natural resources. Although the EPA did not develop a model to assess the net environmental benefits of varyingly strict standards, greater limits to soot likely would yield better outcomes for the environment.

The benefits of lowering soot emissions greatly outweigh the costs. The EPA estimates that lowering the limit to 8 micrograms per cubic meter could cost over a billion dollars. But that cost pales in comparison to the savings from reducing deaths and illness. Even lower-end estimates find that the combined economic value of avoided deaths and illness associated with a limit of 8 micrograms per cubic meter would be over $127 billion in net benefits.

And these savings do not include benefits to health and well-being. The human cost of unchecked air pollution itself is unacceptable, and the benefits of strong standards are undeniable.

After more than 10 years, any action to limit soot exposure is welcome. Yet, the Biden administration’s plan is not ambitious enough. To honor the president’s commitments to public health, the environment and communities disproportionately exposed to pollutants, the Biden administration needs to strengthen soot standards to a maximum of 8 micrograms per cubic meter annually and 25 micrograms per cubic meter daily. Anything less puts American lives and natural resources at risk, shirks the requirements of the Clean Air Act and betrays the administration’s own environmental justice commitments.

It is not too late for the EPA to tighten its proposed standard to promote health and protect the environment and vulnerable communities. The EPA is accepting comments on its proposed standards until March 28 and will release a final rule later this year. It also conducted three virtual public hearings in February. Building on its recent action to strengthen  standards for methane emissions, the EPA under the Biden administration should continue to listen to scientists and the public to do the same for soot to save lives and protect public health.

Sarah Millender is a research assistant for health policy at the Center for American Progress. 

Jill Rosenthal is the director of public health policy at the Center for American Progress.

Auburn Bell is a policy analyst for energy and environment at the Center for American Progress.

Tags Air quality Biden clear air act Climate change Donald Trump EPA Health pollution air pollution Public health soot soot pollution

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