EPA Lowers Soot Pollution Standards by 20%

By Paul Riegler on 14 December 2012
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The Environmental Protection Agency announced new air quality standards that will reduce by 20% the maximum allowable amount of soot, or particulate matter, that will be released into the air by smokestacks, diesel exhaust, and other sources of pollution.

Also known as particulate matter, or PM, soot can include a number of components including acids, organic chemicals, and soil or dust particles.  The EPA’s standard is concerned with smaller particles, namely those that are ten micrometers in diameter or smaller, since they more easily can pass into the human body through the nose or throat and penetrate the lungs.

The agency, which acted under a court deadline, today set an annual standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air, versus the previous standard of 15 micrograms, set in 1997.  A federal court held that the current standard was insufficient to protect the public from the effects of particulate matter and represents a significant tightening.

Communities across the U.S. are required to meet the new standard by 2020.  Currently, 66 counties in eight states do not meet the new standard.  This includes the metropolitan areas of Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that the problem has been shown to be extremely detrimental to health, including heart attacks, strokes, and aggravated asthma, and is said to cause tens of thousands of premature deaths each year.

According to Jackson, almost all communities in the United States will be able to meet the new standards by 2020 fairly easily and they will require “no additional state or local efforts to implement.”

The EPA classifies particles into two groups.  Inhalable coarse particles are larger than 2.5 micrometers and smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter.  They are found near roadways and dusty industrial sites.  Fine particles, found in smoke and haze, are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller.  Sources include emissions from power plants and automobiles as well as forest fires.

According to the EPA, the new standards will prevent up to 40,000 premature deaths, 32,000 hospital admissions, and the loss of 4.7 million days of work due to illness.

The EPA has not yet disclosed how it will enforce the new standards so the impact on a wide range of industries ranging from coal companies to utilities to automobile manufacturers is not yet clear.