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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency set a new standard for the air we breathe, saying exactly how many particles of soot are safe. But many scientists and health experts say the new standards are not tough enough, as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: The EPA decided to reduce the amount of soot that it says is safe to be in the air on any particular day. But the agency decided not to tighten the annual standard for fine particles. EPA administrator Steve Johnson says he's proud of his decision.

Mr. STEVE JOHNSON (Environmental Protection Agency): Today, EPA is issuing the most health protective national air quality standards in our nation's history.

SHOGREN: But many health experts say the agency should have made both the daily and the annual standards tighter. In fact, EPA's own science advisory board urged the agency to do this. Joel Schwartz is an environmental epidemiologist at Harvard University.

Dr. JOEL SCHWARTZ (Harvard University): Compared to what the EPA's science advisory board asked them to, the standard that they are setting is going to result in more deaths each year than died on September 11 from the terrorist attacks.

SHOGREN: Schwartz says scientists, medical experts and environmental groups all made the risk clear to the EPA. But EPA administrator Johnson says the science is not that clear.

Mr. JOHNSON: The point I was making is is that this is very complex science. And that reasonable people can disagree.

SHOGREN: Johnson says the new standard is strict enough to protect people's health. Fine particles come from the exhausts of power plants, cars and factories. They get into people's lungs and trigger asthma attacks and lung failure. Soot also can cause heart attacks or make them more deadly. The EPA says fine particles are responsible for thousands of deaths per year.

Environmental and public health groups criticize the EPA for failing to protect people. Paul Billings represents the American Lung Association.

Mr. PAUL BILLINGS (American Lung Association): The air quality standards tell the public when the air is safe to breathe. They're supposed to be based on the best, most accurate health science available. It's very clear in this case that EPA is not following the science.

SHOGREN: Industry groups don't like the new EPA standards, either. They say they're not strict enough. Dan Riedinger of the Edison Electric Institute represents the power industry.

Mr. DAN RIEDINGER (Edison Electric Institute): We think EPA has jumped the gun by adopting a more stringent fine particle standard before the existing standards have been given a chance to work.

SHOGREN: The new standards will go into effect immediately, but it'll be years before their impact is felt.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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