New soot pollution standards address public health threats but not ecosystems and overall welfare.
Washington, D.C. – Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), commonly known as soot. Under the Clean Air Act, NAAQS set a baseline standard for air quality across the United States for PM2.5 and ground level ozone, also known as smog. While the new proposed standards would provide stronger annual protections (by lowering the standards to between 9-11 from 12 micrograms per cubic meter) for public health (“primary standards”), the new updates fail to address the 24-hour standard, ignoring scientific recommendations to further protect people from this pollution and do not properly address soot pollution’s resulting harms to nature, crops and other entities that affect public welfare (“secondary standards”).
The primary, health-based standards are meant to protect people, including our most vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, people of color and people with preexisting health conditions. Secondary effects pertain to animals and ecosystems, soil, water, crops, vegetation, property, weather, visibility, manmade structures, and general quality of life, and there is abundant research showing that PM2.5 is detrimental to each. Fine particulate matter is also a major cause of haze in urban, rural, and national parks/wilderness areas, obscuring views and further harming the health of those recreating outdoors. This pollution can enter aquatic ecosystems and damage all organisms both directly and through bioaccumulation (absorption up the food chain).
The NAAQS rule on soot comes nearly two years after Trump’s EPA kept outdated 2012 standards in place, despite robust evidence that these did not protect citizens from toxic levels of pollution and that the standards were deficient when it comes to protecting public welfare and preserving natural resources. In 2021, the EPA agreed to review the standards. Though the Clean Air Act requires that they identify both “primary standards” relating to human health as well as “secondary standards” that consider secondary effects, evaluate science-based evidence of causal effects, and propose national standards for both, they didn’t. For clean air advocates, the oversight is unacceptable.
“The science is clear – soot is bad for the health of our communities and national parks. Because countless people and organizations like the National Parks Conservation Association spoke out and demanded the Biden administration take action, they’ve taken this modest step toward cleaner air, but it doesn’t go far enough,” says Ulla Reeves, campaigns director for the National Parks Conservation Association’s Clean Air Program. “Beyond the harm it causes people, soot wreaks havoc on our national parks’ plants, wildlife, waters and our views. People deserve to visit national parks and not only breathe clean air but also experience the natural world free from this haze and soot pollution. EPA must set standards that match any strengthening of the public health standard to incrementally safeguard nature, our national parks and everything they protect.”
“The Clean Air Act continues to be important legislation for protecting our health and environment from soot and other air pollutants, but we need it to do a lot more,” said Georgia Murray, a staff scientist with the Appalachian Mountain Club. “For people and for the planet, it is essential that the EPA strengthen fine particulate national standards to address concerns for both public health and natural resources.”
“Fine particles of soot harm lungs and inhibit forest growth in New York’s Adirondack Park and across the country. Soot also worsens the impact of global warming by darkening ice and snow, causing them to melt faster in sunlight,” says William C. Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council. “We need strong soot emissions standards. Just as important is the need to invest in climate, clean water and clean air monitoring and research, so Northeast states can modernize their air-quality monitoring systems and can verify whether the standards are working.”
While environmental groups applaud the EPA’s move today to strengthen the annual soot standard to protect public health, there is deep disappointment about the failure to strengthen the 24-hour standard and they call on the EPA to not leave weaker secondary standards in place if the improved primary standards are finalized. EPA should finalize secondary standards at this time that incrementally advance ecosystem protections by keeping the annual and 24hr standards in sync with the primary until a proper scientific review for a distinct secondary standard can be conducted.
About the National Parks Conservation Association: Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its more than 1.6 million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s most iconic and inspirational places for future generations. For more information, visit www.npca.org.
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