EPA to Revise Particulate Matter Standards

- by Rachel Smolker

Medical professionals agree that particulates—especially the smaller ones that can enter deep into the lungs—are harmful to human health, so much so that there is, in fact, no “safe level” of exposure. Yet, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is tasked with setting a level for particulate emissions from biomass and other power plants—as if some number of illnesses and deaths is “acceptable.”

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The agency is now considering public comments on their proposed (and long overdue) revision of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulates. EPA is required to review these standards every 5 years—but the last time they were reviewed in 2006, the agency ended up in a court battle that kicked back any toughening of standards for fine particulates. The current process is a response to that history. And as the years tick by, hundreds of thousands of people suffer the consequences and costs of particulate-related diseases, including cardiopulmonary diseases, strokes, asthma, and premature births. 

According to the Washington Post, the White House Office of Management and Budget intervened in this proposed standard, forcing EPA to propose less stringent limits on PM 2.5 (Particulate Matter 2.5 microns or less) than initially suggested—a move considered quite inappropriate given EPA’s mandate to base decision making on science, not politics. But politics tend to rule in the end. The White House is well aware that EPA is under incredibly intense pressure. Right wing republicans are intent on undermining any and all regulation—they claim it’s “bad for the economy” and raise the threat of job losses. Apparently they have not read the numerous studies showing that savings in healthcare costs outweigh costs of compliance with stricter regulations (not to mention the many other benefits of less pollution). 

The crux of the matter is: Who saves money and otherwise benefits? Does the public (our families, our children, our lungs) benefit from better health and fewer healthcare costs, or do polluting industries seeking to maximize their own profits get away without having to pay the expenses to clean up their mess? Biomass incinerators spew particulates—even more per unit of energy generated than coal facilities, in many cases. Those particulates include ultrafine and “nano” particles—those so small they can bypass most of the bodies defenses and deliver toxins directly into the bloodstream. EPA has not even begun to consider regulating those, which are increasingly recognized as by far the most health damaging.

The reason? These very fine particulates are difficult to measure, difficult to clean up (they bypass most filters in smokestacks), and some of them form not in smokestacks, but somewhere in the atmosphere, from the agglomeration of chemicals emitted that subsequently react in the atmosphere to form small particles. Like other particulates, these play a key role in global warming when they collect in the atmosphere (as aerosols) and are deposited on snow and ice (darkening it, therefore causing it to melt faster).

Those who feel pollution should not be regulated will be at least mollified to find that facilities with pre-construction permits are “grandfathered” and will be exempted. That means a large number of facilities—including some particulate-spewing biomass incinerators—will not have to comply with stricter regulations at all. Others will have five years to comply, and if that’s too challenging, there is opportunity to apply for an extension. Meanwhile, families across the country will continue to struggle under the burden of pollution, literally subsidizing polluters with their own hearts, lungs, and blood.

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