According to the American Lung Association’s 2022 State of the Air report, more than four in 10 Americans (more than 137 million people) live in counties with unhealthy air. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a proposal to update the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for particulate air pollution. However, this proposal misses the mark and is inadequate to protect public health from this deadly pollutant. The EPA needs to strengthen it.
Particle pollution, or particulate matter, is a mixture of tiny liquids and solid particles that can include dust, dirt, soot, smoke, or liquid droplets. This pollution is commonly the byproduct of power plants, combustion engines, and forest fires.
Breathing polluting particles can affect our health with every breath, causing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and cancer. Even healthy adults are at risk of breathing in polluting particles. But the impact of air pollution is particularly damaging to the highest-risk Americans, including pregnant people, infants, children, the elderly, and people with chronic illnesses such as asthma, COPD, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
EPA is required to set standards to limit outdoor air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Strengthening the standards that regulate particulate pollution under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) would have significant health benefits for millions of Americans at risk. Current science shows that tighter limits at levels of 8 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) for the annual standard and 25 µg/m3 for the 24-hour standard are urgently needed to protect vulnerable populations. Under proposed new updates to the air quality standards for fine particles, EPA would update the annual standard from 12 µg/m3 to a level between 9 and 10 µg/m3 and not update the 24-hour standards at all. This proposal simply does not reflect current science.
For decades, air pollution has disproportionately harmed people of color and people living in low-income communities. Truly protective standards for particulate pollution will support President Biden’s environmental justice goals and are necessary to drive cleanup in places currently experiencing unhealthy levels of deadly particulate pollution. This is critically important in communities where a source of air pollution, such as a power plant or port, is nearby.
A stricter 24-hour standard is also needed to better inform the public when air pollution levels are unhealthy. The NAAQS are the foundation of the EPA’s Air Quality Index, which people across the country use to plan their outdoor activities. Right now, the outdated EPA standard means people can be told outside air is safe to breathe on a day when it really isn’t. Breathing dirty air negatively affects everyone’s health, but for people who already have COPD or other respiratory diseases, it can trigger painful and dangerous symptoms, including shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and asthmatic episodes.
Finalizing stricter particle pollution standards is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to tackling poor air quality. The EPA is currently working on national standards to limit emissions from the oil and gas industry and must also finalize them without delay. The agency also needs to further protect children from toxic mercury emissions and set stricter emission standards for cars and trucks to spur a national transition to zero-emission vehicles.
In the meantime, states can take action by adopting California’s strict rules to clean up the transportation sector. A full transition to zero-emissions electricity and transportation would result in some 110,000 lives saved, 2.7 million asthma attacks averted, and major reductions in greenhouse gases that amplify risks to public health, air quality air and more.
Ordinary citizens can also help drive action. Americans should read up on the recently passed Cut Inflation Act to understand what steps they and their community can take to clean the air and improve health, like tax credits for electric vehicle purchases or energy-efficient home upgrades. . People can urge their local government to support measures that invest in zero-emission vehicles and electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And the public can pressure the EPA to tighten the particulate pollution rules to levels supported by science during the agency’s public comment period on the proposal.
No matter who you are or where you live, air pollution affects your health and the health of your loved ones. We must all join the fight for cleaner air – it has never been more important.
Sophia Kianni is an Iranian-American environmentalist. She is the founder and CEO of Climate Cardinals, an international non-profit organization with 8,000 volunteers in more than 40 countries working to translate climate information into more than 100 languages. She represents the US as the youngest member of the first United Nations Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. She is also studying climate science and public policy at Stanford University.
Dr. Meredith C. McCormack, MD, MHS, is a pulmonary critical care physician. She is an expert in the effects of air pollution on health and in the diagnosis and treatment of patients with obstructive pulmonary disease, including those with asthma and COPD. She serves as associate director of the Johns Hopkins Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care and as director of the Johns Hopkins BREATHE (Bridge Research, Lung Health, and Environment) Center.