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EPA’s new air pollution rules: Will they promote a cleaner environment in the US?

Particulate matter not only causes cardiovascular and respiratory illness, but it also increases the risk of adverse birth outcomes.

Air pollution risk is a function of the hazard of the pollutant and the exposure to that pollutant. Image by Janak Bhatta (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Air pollution risk is a function of the hazard of the pollutant and the exposure to that pollutant. Image by Janak Bhatta (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s has created new rules for restricting the amount of fine particulate matter released into the air. The rules change the current annually allowed amount from 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 9 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The concern is with particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (or the equivalent aerodynamic diameter).

The EPA indicates that this change has a potential public health benefit, preventing 4,500 premature deaths annually, saving 290,000 lost workdays and saving as much as $46 billion in net health benefits.

Does this go far enough? The World Health Organization has a guideline level for fine particulate matter of only 5 micrograms per cubic meter, almost twice as stringent as the EPA’s new standard. It should also be noted that the change will not be instant and the EPA has presented a schedule giving about eight years to reach the standard, making it vulnerable to a U-turn should Donald Trump win the forthcoming general election.

Hence, how strong is the EPA claim? University of Michigan researcher Stuart Batterman, professor of environmental science and global public health at the School of Public Health, has been studying the impacts of the environment on health, including air pollution control engineering, air quality monitoring, indoor air quality, exposure assessment and environmental epidemiology.

Batterman broadly welcomes the position taken by the EPA, stating: “This is good news. Achieving the new standard will save thousands of lives each year. The EPA has been regulating levels of airborne particulate matter since 1971 and we’ve seen some striking changes over this time.”

Drawing out some of these research findings, Batterman notes: “The scientific evidence shows that health impacts occur at lower and lower levels, and thus the EPA has changed the level and form of the standards some half-dozen times.”

Batterman also observes there have been some “significant advances in understanding the diverse impacts caused by exposure. Particulate matter not only causes cardiovascular and respiratory illness, but it also increases the risk of adverse birth outcomes, psychiatric disorders and Alzheimer’s disease, to name a few.”

 Batterman notes there remains more to do be done in order to improve air pollution. He states: “As old so-called legacy pollution sources like coal-fired power plants are phased out and as forest fire smoke increases, the chemical composition of contributing sources and even the toxicity of this pollutant is shifting. The new standard is helpful, but it’s not going to be the final word.”

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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