Trump administration rejects tougher standards on soot, a deadly air pollutant

The agency locked in current thresholds for fine particle pollution for another five years, despite mounting evidence linking air pollution with illness and death. In its decision, the EPA maintained that the Obama-era levels, set in 2012, are adequately protective of human health. Agency scientists had recommended lowering the annual particulate matter standard to between 8 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter in a draft report last year, citing estimates that reducing the limit to 9 could save roughly 12,200 lives a year.

The current national standards limit annual concentrations of soot to 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Emissions on specific days are allowed to be as high as 35 per cubic meter, a standard set 14 years ago. These fine particles — which measure less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or one-thirtieth the width of a human hair — can enter the lungs and bloodstream, causing inflammation that can lead to asthma, heart attacks and other illnesses.

Monday’s news came as a gut punch to people like Bridgette Murray, whose neighbors in the historically Black, downtown Houston neighborhood of Pleasantville have long struggled with air polluted by nearby petrochemical manufacturing and a bustling highway. The community erected its own monitors last fall to detect pollutants spewing into the air.

A year of data, gathered with the support of the Environmental Defense Fund and Texas Southern University, brought worrisome results: The concentration in the air of fine particle pollution, known as soot, averaged 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

Murray has suffered headaches when the air quality worsens, which is permissible given that daily concentrations are legally permitted to spike up to 35 micrograms per cubic meter. Other residents of the historic Black community have endured various lung ailments and cancer. So, the community went looking for answers. “We wanted to move from that kind of anecdotal posture to actually collect some data,” said Murray, executive director of a community-based organization called Achieving Community Tasks Successfully.

Many activists and public health experts have pushed for stricter national soot standards, saying that a mounting body of scientific evidence links air pollution to lethal outcomes from respiratory diseases, including covid-19.

To Murray, the move offers fresh evidence that the Trump administration is not doing enough to protect disadvantaged communities.

“It is an artificially high standard that is supportive of industry,” she said, noting that her residential neighborhood lies near a massive ship channel that is an engine for economic activity. “But very little is being done to help those who are exposed to that pollution on a day-to-day basis.”

An EPA advisory committee made up of outside experts split on the question, with some members calling for tighter standards and others arguing that the current rules remain sufficient. Ultimately, Wheeler decided this spring to maintain the existing standards for fine particulate matter — the nation’s most widespread deadly pollutant.

“The United States has some of the cleanest air in the world, and we’re going to keep it that way,” Wheeler told reporters at the time. “We believe the current standard is protective of public health.”

Soot comes from a variety of sources. Among them: industrial operations, incinerators, car and truck exhaust, smokestacks and burning wood. Poor and minority communities in the United States tend to be exposed to greater air pollution, including soot, often because they often are located close to highways and industrial facilities.

A 2019 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that on average, communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic breathe 66 percent more air pollution from vehicles than White residents. A separate study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences found that Black and Hispanic communities in the United States bear a “pollution burden” that far exceeds any air pollution they produce.

“This flies in the face of good science and good public health. It is outrageous,” said Dominique Browning, co-founder and the head of Moms Clean Air Force, an advocacy group that pushes for robust air and climate oversight around the country.

“It builds in years more of assaults on the human body, especially in places where people are breathing the worst of it,” she added. “It just basically sends a message of not caring about people.”

But several major business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Petroleum Institute, backed the administration’s decision to retain the existing standards, noting that annual concentrations of fine particulate matter are down by 39 percent since 2000.

Monday’s decision marks the Trump administration’s latest move in a long-running effort to ease industrial regulation. The White House has rolled back more than 125 environmental…

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