MAC: Mines and Communities

U.S. Urged to Set Stricter Particulate Matter Standards

Published by MAC on 2006-09-13

U.S. Urged to Set Stricter Particulate Matter Standards


13th September 2006

A federal proposal to set new health standards for particulate matter is too weak and could leave more than 77 million people vulnerable to the hazardous pollution, the American Lung Association said Wednesday. The group is urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen federal particulate matter standards before it finalizes them later this month.

"This is the most important public health decision the EPA will make this year," said John Kirkwood, president and chief executive officer of the American Lung Association. "The decision will impact the health and lives of millions of people nationwide who currently breathe dirty, particulate-polluted air."

Particulate matter is a broad term for tiny airborne particles in dust, smoke and soot, created by a wide array of sources, including cars, factories, power plants and forest fires.

The particles have been linked to respiratory and heart ailments and are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.

In December 2005, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson proposed keeping current annual standards for coarse and fine particulate matter, but tightening daily limits.

Johnson has endured sharp criticism from environmentalists and public health groups over the proposal and has even faced criticism from the very body that advised him on particulate matter - EPA's Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, known as CASAC.

An independent scientific advisory committee, CASAC provided its recommendations to Johnson in August 2005 after reviewing information provided by the agency, but the EPA administrator proposal less stringent standards than the committee suggested.

In an unprecedented move, members of CASAC sent a letter in March to Johnson re-explaining the science behind their advice and urging him to adopt their recommendation for a stricter annual standard for fine particulate matter.

At a Senate hearing July, EPA officials defended the proposal and said the final rule will protect public health.

The report issued Wednesday by the American Lung Association took issue with that assertion.

The organization analyzed the public health consequences of four different pairs of annual and daily standards, using EPA data from particle pollution monitors in counties nationwide from 2002-2004.

It finds that current standards, enacted in 1997, protect only 53 million people. The EPA's proposal would protect 82 million people, whereas standards favored by the American Lung Association and the American Medical Association would protect 159 million people across the nation.

But industry groups and some Republican lawmakers contend EPA's proposal is overly stringent. At the July hearing, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman James Inhofe questioned the science behind the EPA proposal. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said EPA "cherry-picked" information to justify its proposal and did not fully consider studies that cast doubt on the health risks from particulate matter.

Republicans have raised repeated concerns about the potential economic harm from stricter regulations, given that many communities are struggling to meet the current particulate matter standards.

More than 200 counties are trying to meet the current standards and tighter regulations could affect more than 600 counties.

But public health advocates note that the Clean Air Act prohibits EPA from consider economic impacts when setting health-based standards for particulate matter and other key air pollutants.

Furthermore, researchers are increasingly discovering the dangers of particulate matter.

More than 2,000 scientific studies published in the past decade link particulate matter with adverse health effects. People most vulnerable to particle pollution include children, senior citizens, and people with such chronic conditions as asthma, heart disease and diabetes.

"The EPA has a clear choice - endorse strong new standards that will fully protect Americans from this deadly pollutant or … continue to side with polluting industries and consign our citizens to years of choking pollution," Kirkwood said.

"We hope the EPA will make its decision based on science, not politics."

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