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On clean air standards, the EPA should be as tough as possible

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
FILE – EPA Administrator Michael Regan stands near the Marathon Petroleum Refinery as he conducts a television interview, while touring neighborhoods that abut the refinery, in Reserve, La., on Nov. 16, 2021. Residents of a Louisiana parish located in the heart of a cluster of polluting petrochemical factories filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday, March 21, 2023, raising allegations of civil rights, environmental justice and religious liberty violations. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

Cradling your infant grandchildren — or, years later, dancing at their wedding. Long lunches with old friends. Finally taking that dream vacation. These are the gifts that come with healthy aging. No matter where you live, everyone should have an equal opportunity to enjoy them. 

But too often, these opportunities are stolen, when microscopic particles in the air make us sick. These particulate matter, designated PM2.5, come from burning fossil fuels, and they are 30 times smaller than a strand of human hair. They penetrate deep into the lungs and pass directly into the bloodstream, where they reduce heart and lung function. 

Over time, these tiny particles can kill. Researchers have estimated that particulate matter is responsible for more than 4 million premature deaths every year around the world, including more than 50,000 in the U.S. 

This spring, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a crucial opportunity to protect our health by imposing new standards on PM2.5 air pollution. Regulators must take bold action. 

The EPA is considering several possible ceilings for the deadly particulates. Adopting the strongest of these options as a new National Ambient Air Quality Standard will pay huge dividends for both public and planetary health, improving quality of life for aging Americans and slowing the rate of climate change. 

Tougher standards will also help close unfair disparities in our society. A study we coauthored that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week finds that strengthening PM2.5 standards from 12 micrograms per cubic meter (the current limit) to 8 micrograms per cubic meter (the strongest option under consideration) would have a particularly profound and beneficial impact on the communities that are most threatened by air pollution — namely, Black and low-income Americans ages 65 and older. 

The study projects that strengthening air pollution standards to 8 micrograms per cubic meter would reduce premature deaths among older adults currently exposed to some of the worst levels of air pollution, cutting mortality rates by up to 7 percent for Black Americans and low-income white Americans.  

To be clear, everyone in the U.S. would benefit; the mortality rate among higher-income white seniors currently exposed to high air pollution levels, for instance, would fall by 4 percent. But the most threatened communities would see the biggest dividends in terms of improved health.  

Why will the impact vary? Air pollution has a bigger impact in some places than others. In particular, structural racism — past and present — casts a long shadow on the health of Black Americans. They often have less access to resources that can dampen the effect of airborne pollutants, including good quality housing, well-ventilated indoor spaces, ample green space, nutritious foods and safe places to exercise. And a disproportionate number of polluting factories and highways have been built in Black neighborhoods. Low-income Americans face similar challenges. 

As a result, these communities are disproportionately susceptible to harm from microscopic pollutants. And their members stand to benefit the most from strong regulatory action.  

The Biden administration has made a strong commitment to environmental justice, pledging a sustained effort to redress generations of harm inflicted on communities of color. Enacting the strongest possible air pollution standard would be an important step in the right direction. It would mean more opportunities for older Americans in these neighborhoods to enjoy their retirements and their families without suffering the health impacts of invisible pollutants. 

Setting an aggressive standard would also advance the fight against climate change. The same steps that will reduce pollutants — for instance, cutting industrial and vehicular emissions — will also lower the quantity of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. And that, in turn, will slow the rate of global warming. We’re also optimistic that tough standards will spur technological innovation in pollution controls. That could lead to even more dramatic improvements in air quality and environmental protection. 

New limits on PM2.5 are clearly coming: The EPA has already conducted a policy analysis determining that pollution standards must be strengthened to protect human health. The question is how low regulators will go. 

The agency estimates that setting the standard at 9 micrograms per cubic meter could prevent up to 4,200 premature deaths and 270,000 lost workdays per year and save as much as $43 billion in health care costs when fully implemented. Our results suggest these benefits may be considerably larger. We hope our analysis will persuade the EPA of the benefits of the tougher standard of at least 8 micrograms per cubic meter. 

The public and policymakers must join forces to push for the strongest possible reform, in the name of our health, our climate and equal opportunity.  

We all deserve clean air.  

Scott Delaney is an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Francesca Dominici is the Clarence James Gamble Professor of Biostatistics, Population, and Data Science at the Harvard Chan School and co-director of the Data Science Initiative at Harvard University. 

Tags Clean Air Act Environmental Protection Agency fine particulate matter Fossil fuels Politics of the United States racial disparities in health

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