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Tighter standards for PM proposed in the US

Strengthening the annual fine particle pollution standard will improve health protection and provide benefits worth billions of dollars.

On 15 June the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to update its national air quality standard for fine particle pollution (PM2.5). The proposal came in response to legal action filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the American Lung Association and the National Parks Conservation Association.

Pollution by fine particles causes serious health effects, including premature death, heart attacks and strokes, as well as acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma among children. It also contributes to the haze that envelops many US cities and national parks.

The proposal envisages a strengthening of the annual mean standard for harmful PM2.5 to a level within a range of 13 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) to 12 µg/m3, to be compared to the current annual standard of 15 µg/m3. For comparison, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended an air quality guideline value of 10 µg/m3 as an annual mean.

It is also proposed by the EPA to set a separate fine particle standard to improve visibility, primarily in urban areas. This standard could be set at either 28 or 30 deciviews.

The EPA points out that the proposal has no impact on the existing daily standard for PM2.5 at 35 µg/m3 or the existing daily standard for coarse particles (PM10) at 150 µg/m3, both of which would remain unchanged.

As a result of emission control action already taken or in the pipeline through the Clean Air Act, the EPA estimates that 99 per cent of all counties in the US will meet the proposed new standards without any additional action. EPA plans to make attainment/non-attainment designations by December 2014, with those designations likely becoming effective in early 2015.

States would then have five years, until 2020, to meet the proposed health standards, and states may request a possible extension to 2025, depending on the severity of an area’s PM pollution problems and the availability of pollution controls.

Under US law, EPA cannot consider costs in setting or revising national ambient air quality standards. However, to inform the public, the EPA is required to analyse the benefits and costs of implementing new standards. Therefore it will issue a regulatory impact analysis that estimates the potential benefits and costs of meeting a revised annual health standard in the year 2020.

EPA estimates that the proposed standards are expected to yield significant health benefits, valued at US$2.3 billion to 5.9 billion annually for a proposed standard of 12 μg/m3 and at US$88 million to 220 million annually for a proposed standard of 13 μg/m3. The estimated costs of implementing the proposal are US$69 million (for 12 μg/m3) and $2.9 million (for 13 μg/m3). This would result in a return of US$30 to US$86 for every dollar invested in pollution control.

“This proposal is long overdue,” said Paul Cort, the Earthjustice attorney who represented the Lung Association and NPCA in legal proceedings. “The fact that the EPA has been put back on track by the courts is an important first step in this process, but now the agency needs to set strong final standards to protect people from this deadly pollution. The law requires it, and the millions of Americans who live in areas made filthy by particle pollution desperately need it.”

Earthjustice, the American Lung Association and Clean Air Task Force urge an annual standard of 11 µg/m3 and a daily standard of 25 µg/m3. The groups collaborated to last year produce a report entitled “Sick of soot: How the EPA can save lives by cleaning up fine particle pollution”. According to this study, an annual standard of 11 µg/m3 and a daily standard of 25 µg/m3 could every year spare the American public from 35,700 premature deaths; 2,350 heart attacks; 23,290 visits to the hospital and emergency room; 29,800 cases of acute bronchitis; 1.4 million cases of aggravated asthma; and 2.7 million days of missed work or school due to air-pollution-related ailments.

The EPA will accept public comment for 63 days after the proposed standards are published in the Federal Register, and will then issue a final ruling by 14 December 2012

Christer Ågren

Information on the EPA proposal:
Comments from the American Lung Association:

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