EPA Targets Deadliest Pollution: Soot

The Environmental Protection Agency is tightening the standard for how much soot in the air is safe to breathe. Fine particles come from the combustion of fossil fuels by cars and industrial facilities. They're linked to all kinds of health problems, including heart attacks and lung ailments like asthma. States will be required to clean up their air to the level specified by the new standard.

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The Environmental Protection Agency is targeting the deadliest common air pollutant out there. It's soot, the tiny particles that come from power plants and diesel exhaust. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports that last week, the EPA reduced the amount of soot it considers safe to breathe.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: For years, environmental and public health groups have been suing the EPA to force it to tighten the soot standard. That's because the current limit didn't match what scientists were saying about how much soot is safe. The groups calculate the new standard announced Friday will prevent about 15,000 premature deaths a year and countless asthma attacks. Earthjustice lawyer Paul Cort says it's not just about the numbers.

PAUL CORT: These are real people, real stories of kids being rushed to emergency rooms and people's parents dying before their time. So, I mean, these rules really will affect people's lives and give them longer with their families and stop a lot of the suffering that's going on out there.

SHOGREN: Even relatively small amounts of these fine particles in the air can trigger heart attacks and contribute to lung cancer, diabetes and other deadly ailments. Soot comes from power plants, drilling rigs, diesel trucks and just about anything else that uses fossil fuels.

Under the EPA's new rule, communities will have to meet a stricter annual average for how much soot can be in the air. The new target will be about 20 percent tighter than the old one. About 66 counties - mostly in the East and California - would fail the test today.

But EPA administrator Lisa Jackson says the soot standard won't add additional burdens to most communities, because there's already a suite of existing air pollution rules in place that will clean up the air in time for the deadlines of the new standard.

LISA JACKSON: What's the really good news is that there are rules that EPA has done going back as far as 1999 and continuing all the way up until last year when we did the mercury and air toxic standards that have been kicking in.

SHOGREN: The EPA estimates that by 2020, these rules will improve air quality enough so the only places in the country that will violate the soot standard will be seven counties in Southern California. The EPA believes the soot limit will save much more than it will cost.

However, it could cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Industry officials warn that the new standard will get in the way of economic recovery in some areas. Ross Eisenberg is a vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

ROSS EISENBERG: So if you're a manufacturer and you are in one of the areas that is now in sort of the penalty box for particulate matter, then if you want to take on new operations, you have to do a whole lot of things that really make it unattractive to actually taking on that expansion.

SHOGREN: For instance, companies may have to find ways to reduce pollution in their communities before they can build new factories. Eisenberg says that the EPA is going too far.

EISENBERG: There needs to be some sort of balance between the environment and the economy, and rules like this just show that that balance just does not exist.

SHOGREN: The United States already has made lots of progress in cleaning up fine particles over the decades. Recent epidemiological studies show that's paying off. Reducing soot in recent years has stretched the average lifespan by four months, and the new standard will keep up that trend.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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