Earth Day: Soot is a global killer. Time to sweep it up

Amy Laura Hall hoola-hoops holding her parasol, during the  Durham's Earth Day Festival, in Durham Central Park, Durham N.C., Sunday, April 21, 2013.
Amy Laura Hall hoola-hoops holding her parasol, during the Durham's Earth Day Festival, in Durham Central Park, Durham N.C., Sunday, April 21, 2013.
AP Photo/The Herald-Sun, Bernard Thomas

Earth Day is usually billed as a time to look beyond ourselves and think about health of the planet. But environmental stewardship isn’t just an ethical responsibility. Where air quality is concerned, it’s a needed response to an immediate health crisis.

Every year, polluted outdoor air claims 3.4 million lives worldwide—the same number claimed by obesity and far more than the 2 million lost to high cholesterol. Existing technology could prevent many of these deaths by cutting the production of soot (also known as “fine particle air pollution”), but polluting industries have blocked key reforms for the past dozen years. Now, thanks to two disputed efforts by the Obama administration, real progress is within reach.

The United States has made tremendous strides since passing the Clean Air Act in 1970 and expanding it 20 years later. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the act’s pollution standards saved 160,000 lives between 1990 and 2010. A 2009 study of 51 U.S. cities found that soot reduction alone had added five months to average life expectancy between the early 1980s and the early 2000s.

The reasons are no mystery. Though once considered harmless at all but the highest concentrations, the fine particles produced by the combustion of wood, coal, oil and diesel have emerged as major causes of lung disease and cardiovascular disease, the nation’s leading killer. Our bodies can expel coarse particles by coughing or sneezing, but fine particles burrow deep into lung tissues and permeate the bloodstream, damaging tissues and organs throughout the body.

The American Lung Association estimates that U.S. soot levels declined by nearly a quarter between 2000 and 2010, as cars, trucks and industrial plants improved emission controls. Yet until a few months ago, the national standard for fine-particle air pollution was still set at a 1997 level that science had since identified as hazardous.  In 2012, the lung association estimated that 40% of Americans—some 127 million people—still live in dangerously polluted areas. In a report titled Sick of Soot, produced with other health and environmental groups, it concluded that an overdue update of federal air-quality standards could prevent nearly 36,000 premature deaths ever year, not to mention 1.4 million cases of aggravated asthma and 2.7 million missed work or school days.

The Environmental Protection Agency had tried to update the soot standard in 2006, as required by the Clean Air Act. After a scientific review, an independent advisory committee recommended lowering the allowable soot level from 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 11 to 13 micrograms. The advisers estimated that the updated standard would save 2,000 lives every year, but the Bush administration blocked the new standard, prompting legal challenges from health groups, environmental groups and 11 states.

In 2009 a federal appeals court ordered the EPA to revisit the soot standard, and when the Obama administration dragged its feet the court set a deadline of June 2012. Finally, last summer, the EPA finally re-proposed essentially the same standard that Bush had blocked six years earlier. And on January 15 of this year, the new standard became law.

The new standard doesn’t directly regulate polluting industries, but its sets a baseline that states and cities must strive to comply with. The coal and oil industries condemn the new standard as scientifically flawed and needlessly expensive—the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity calling it “another example of how the [EPA] is ignoring the harm its aggressive regulatory agenda is causing to the U.S. economy.”

But if the agency’s cost-benefit analysis holds true, the overdue rule change won’t bankrupt us anytime soon. EPA concedes that meeting the new standard could cost industry $53 million to $350 million each year, but the resulting health benefits will save the country an estimated $4 billion to $9 billion and prevent up to 40,000 premature deaths by 2030.

The struggle over soot is far from over. As the new standard takes effect this spring, a legal battle is brewing over a rule that has even bigger health implications. Last year, the EPA updated the Clean Air Act’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS for short). The rule limits the release of mercury, arsenic, chromium, lead and other highly toxic pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants. The pollutants can increase cancer risk and stunt children’s brain development, and their release into the air by electric utilities has contaminated water bodies in all 50 states. In the Northeast alone, health authorities advise pregnant women and young children to avoid fish from 10,000 lakes and 46,000 miles of river.

Under the new MATS rule, existing coal- and oil-fired power plants would have to cut emissions to the lowest levels achievable with current technology. Compliance could cost the utility industry up to $9 billion, but the health benefits could dwarf those of the new soot rule—because the improvements needed to reduce toxic emissions would also reduce soot production.

“The MATS rule reduces fine-particle pollution more than the fine-particle rule itself,” says John Walke, senior attorney and clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If it survives, the country will reap health benefits that far exceed anything we’ve seen in the past decade.” The value of those health benefits could exceed $90 billion by 2016, according to EPA’s analysis.

That, in a sense, is why the utility industry wants to block the new rule. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce writes in brief on the case, more than 99% of the new rule’s benefits would be “co-benefits” from soot reduction—not direct benefits from the reduction of mercury and the other toxic substances. The court won’t hear arguments before early summer, but we all have a stake in the outcome. As former EPA Administrator Carol Browner said when the government finally succeeded at updating the soot rule this winter, “We don’t have to choose between a healthy  economy and healthy air and lungs. We can have both.”

Earth Day: Soot is a global killer. Time to sweep it up