New EPA air quality guidelines are a step forward, experts say

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The Environmental Protection Agency’s new national air quality guidelines have been hailed as a step forward by campaigners and experts.

The EPA announced last week that it would strengthen its annual health-based national air quality standards for fine particulate matter (also known as PM2.5 or soot) to 9 micrograms per cubic meter from the current level of 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said the new air quality standards will save lives and make people healthier.

The agency said the stricter standards would prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost work days, resulting in net health benefits of up to $46 billion in 2032.

It also confirmed that the current 24-hour standard for PM10 particulate matter remains unchanged, and is also revising the Air Quality Index to improve public communication about the health risks from exposure to PM2.5.

Paul Billings, senior vice president for public policy at the American Lung Association, said in an interview that the organization had called for a stricter standard of 8 micrograms per cubic meter, but the EPA’s new standard is “a step forward.” Stated.

Billings added that it is unfortunate that EPA did not follow the health community’s recommendation to also revise the 24-hour standard to more fully protect public health.

However, he added that the EPA has also updated the air quality index, so future reporting will be more accurate.

Billings said last year’s bushfires helped many people “connect the dots” between climate change and its impact on personal health.

“In the summer of 2023, two-thirds of the eastern United States experienced poor air quality, primarily due to wildfires,” Billings said.

“I think there is strong public support for clean air and a growing awareness of the impact air pollution has on lung health, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”

He also hit back at industry groups that criticized the new air pollution standards.

Several groups criticized the new standards, including the Fertilizer Association, which argued that stricter standards would hinder fertilizer production and economic growth.

Jennifer Rushlow, dean of the Vermont School of the Environment and professor of law at Vermont Law and Graduate School, said in an email that she was disappointed by the news that the 24-hour standard would not change.

“The 24-hour standard is most protective of communities living closest to contaminated facilities,” Rushlow said.

“These communities are most likely to be low-income communities of color. These communities face myriad threats to their health, made worse by exposure to PM2.5.”

It added that the decision to maintain the current 24-hour standard would have a negative impact on “communities most in need of improved public health.”

Dominic Browning, co-founder and director of Mama’s Clean Air Force, which is calling for action on the issue, said in a statement that the new annual standard of 9 micrograms per cubic meter is a “huge step forward”. .

Browning added that EPA’s new safeguards will also go a long way toward strengthening the air quality monitoring network that EPA relies on.

“The focus on strengthening guidelines for deploying lifeguards to communities that are already under strain is a welcome move,” she added.

And Paul Shaira, founder and CEO of New York-based real estate and technology company Delos and founder of the International Well Building Institute, said in an interview that the final He said the guidelines are being updated and this is only a positive step.

“The most important takeaway for me from these new guidelines is the increased awareness and understanding of both indoor and outdoor air quality and its impact on human health,” Shaila told me. told.

“Respiratory problems are largely determined by what we breathe. We are indoors 90% of the time, but outdoor pollutants can seep into indoors and affect indoor air quality. give.

“With continued push through updated guidelines and policies, more changes may be made in the future,” Shara added.

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