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The EPA’s soot pollution update falls dangerously short for Latinos

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Steam is emitted from smokestacks at a coal-fired power plant on Nov. 17, 2021, in Craig, Colo.

On Jan. 6, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a proposal to strengthen the annual standards for fine particulate matter, commonly known as soot, from 12 ug/m3 to between 9 and 10 ug/m3, despite an overwhelming body of evidence showing that stronger limits are necessary to mitigate the decades of harm soot pollution has caused, particularly to the country’s Latino population. 

Due to its small size, soot can penetrate our lungs and bloodstream, causing devastating health impacts, including premature deathheart diseasecancer and aggravated asthma, among others. It is one of the reasons the Latino population has a relatively high rate of asthma, with approximately 3.8 million American Latinos grappling with — and in some cases dying from — the chronic lung disease.

Because Latinos are overrepresented in occupations where people work outside such as agriculture, construction and landscaping, we are more vulnerable to outside air contamination, including unsafe levels of particulate matter pollution, or soot, which is a byproduct of fossil fuels and consists of minute particles 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. 

People who suffer from asthma often describe an attack as like trying to breathe with a pillow covering their face. It is nothing short of terrifying, and Latinos in the United States are twice as likely as non-Latino white people to visit an emergency room due to such an episode. This health disparity, which also affects Black and Indigenous populations in the United States, most gravely impacts the Latino community’s younger members, who are 40 percent more likely than non-Latino white children to die from asthma. It is an environmental justice crisis. 

Yet, for years, there has been legislation in place that, if properly implemented, could curtail the extent to which Latinos and other communities of color are disproportionately affected by this disease. Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has required the EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for common air pollutants that endanger people’s health, one of which is soot and another of which is smog, or ozone, which also harms people’s respiratory tracts. 

The Clean Air Act requires that every five years the EPA review the latest scientific data and medical studies upon which the standards are based and revise them accordingly. However, in 2020, the Trump administration’s EPA opted to ignore the science, despite new data highlighting the immediate need for more stringent protections against soot and smog, particularly in communities situated near highways, power plants, farms and factories. As a result, the standards for particulate matter and ozone pollution have remained unchanged since the Obama administration. 

The Biden administration has decided to take another look, though. As a result, it has another opportunity to further its goal of using science-based federal policy to address environmental racism. But the EPA’s proposal for updating the soot standards threatens to let the opportunity pass. 

EPA’s own Regulatory Impact Analysis shows that 8 ug/m3 for the annual standard would prevent 9,200 premature deaths compared to 4,200 premature deaths prevented at the proposed low end of 9 ug/m3. Yet, in their proposal for an updated standard, they went with the higher number and lower investment in human life. It should be noted that The World Health Organization’s fine particulate matter standard set to protect public health is 5 ug/m3, significantly lower than both the current and proposed U.S. standards.

To be sure, the proposed rule on soot was a step in the right direction, but it is also insufficient, given what we know about the persistence of deadly soot pollution in our air and the impact it has on our most vulnerable and overburdened communities. Every day that passes without more stringent protections is a missed opportunity to protect our health, advance environmental justice and reduce other dangerous pollution. 

It’s critically important that the standards for soot and other pollutants reflect what we know in terms of the damage they cause and the exact standards that are necessary to alleviate health disparities for millions of families and save billions in health care spending. Indeed, it is estimated that, in the next two decades, uncontrolled asthma will cost the U.S. economy an estimated $300 billion in direct medical costs alone. But we can do something about this. 

The EPA is accepting public comment on the proposed rule on soot through March 28. They also hosted virtual public hearings on the proposed rulemaking at the end of February. The EPA plans to review the public comments and issue a final rulemaking later this year. It’s imperative that we take the opportunity to speak out in support of stronger pollution standards. Our communities deserve action now.

Laura M. Esquivel, MA MP, is vice president, federal policy and advocacy at the Hispanic Federation.

Tags Clean Air Act Environmental policy in the United States Environmental Protection Agency health disparities Hispanic and Latino Americans Particulate pollution Politics of the United States

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