In the News
February 12, 2024
February 12, 2024
The Biden administration is cracking down on air pollution with a new soot standard from the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency estimates it will save thousands of lives and yield tens of billions of dollars in health benefits by the time it’s fully implemented in 2032.
“This final air quality standard will save lives and make all people healthier, especially within America’s most vulnerable and overburdened communities,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.
The tighter standards affect fine particle pollution, commonly referred to as smoke or soot and known to scientists as PM2.5. It’s emitted by industrial smokestacks, vehicle tailpipes, coal-burning power plants, woodburning and other human activities. It’s also a major component of wildfire smoke.
The particles are small enough to enter the bloodstream from the lungs, and to cross into the brain as well. This makes them devastating to the human body. Long-term exposure causes asthma, cardiovascular problems, dementia, cognitive decline and other health issues. Even low-level, short-duration exposure can cause measurable declines in cognition and physical ability.
Fine particle pollution fell dramatically following the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, which added 1.5 years to the average American’s life expectancy and is widely considered one of the great regulatory success stories of the 20th century. The standards have been tightened several times since then, most recently in 2012.
More recent progress on fine particle pollution has proven elusive, however. After falling steadily between 2000 and 2016, PM2.5 levels plateaued at the dawn of the Trump administration and have hovered around 8 micrograms per cubic meter ever since.
The new ruling brings the standard down to 9 micrograms. Communities with levels above that limit are subject to additional federal oversight and must come up with plans to reduce particle emissions.
Most locales in the United States, including the entirety of Minnesota, are already well below that threshold. For the most recent three years with available data, Minnesota counties have averaged between about 5 and 8 micrograms of annual exposure per year.
Minnesota’s worst air quality is in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Environmental advocates are currently trying to shut down a trash incinerator and a century-old foundry in Minneapolis due in large part to air quality concerns.
Even with those large industrial emitters, however, air in the Twin Cities is still cleaner than in many other U.S. jurisdictions. In some parts of the U.S. — including California’s Central Valley and communities in the industrial Midwest — PM2.5 levels routinely surpass the old standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago estimates that the new threshold of 9 micrograms could add 6.6 million years, in aggregate, to Americans’ lives, particularly those living in regions of the country with bad air.
Minnesota doesn’t stand to see any life expectancy increases from the new standard, primarily because PM2.5 levels are already low. But an even more drastic reduction, to the World Health Organization’s recommended level of 5 micrograms, could add several months to the average Minnesotan’s lifespan, according to the Energy Policy Institute.