EPA's newly tightened air pollution rules are welcome news in polluted places Fresno, in San Joaquin Valley, has some of the worst air in the nation. Residents are getting a burst of hope that new, stricter rules on air pollution could help their health — eventually.

EPA's newly tightened air pollution rules are welcome news in polluted places

EPA's newly tightened air pollution rules are welcome news in polluted places

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Fresno, in San Joaquin Valley, has some of the worst air in the nation. Residents are getting a burst of hope that new, stricter rules on air pollution could help their health — eventually.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Environmental Protection Agency recently tightened rules on one type of dangerous air pollution. That could help clean up the air in some of the country's most polluted places, like the San Joaquin Valley in California. NPR's Alejandra Borunda met with people there who hope the rules will help clean up pollution.

ALEJANDRA BORUNDA, BYLINE: Outside what's called the Big Red Church in Fresno, Calif., 30 adults are blowing big, wobbly, rainbow-colored bubbles into the air.

And everyone is just blowing bubbles with their wands.

(CHEERING)

BORUNDA: Everyone here knows that Fresno has some of the worst air in the country. And on this February day, they're here to learn more about it. The bubbles are stand-ins for harmful tiny particles called soot - or sometimes PM2.5. They're often produced from things like burning fossil fuels, industrial activity and agriculture.

TIM DYE: Over the course of the next three days, the air is not really going to move.

BORUNDA: That's Tim Dye. He's an air pollution expert with the environmental consulting firm, TD Environmental Services.

DYE: We're seeing that right now with the bubbles. They're not moving rapidly away from us. Bubbles are like particles, right? They're starting to accumulate more and more here.

BORUNDA: Pollution from soot and other tiny particles behave just like the bubbles. They can build up in the air, and then people breathe them in. They're so tiny, they can go from the lungs into the bloodstream. That drives inflammation, which causes lots of health problems, from asthma to heart disease. Earlier this month, the EPA tightened the limits for soot pollution - a move the agency says will save thousands of lives by 2032. Health researchers and advocates are excited.

SARA ADAR: That is a big step forward for public health.

BORUNDA: That's Sara Adar. She is a researcher at the University of Michigan. She was at an international conference when she heard the EPA's news.

ADAR: I put it into my talk because I was so excited. I was like, and, you know, amazing news, you know?

BORUNDA: But some new science suggests the new limit might not go far enough. Two new studies look at millions of hospitalization records in the U.S. Pollution levels well below the new standard were linked to millions of health problems, including heart attacks, aneurysms and respiratory emergencies. Yaguang Wei led one of the studies. He's a researcher at Harvard. He says the message isn't complicated.

YAGUANG WEI: We found that there's no safe level.

BORUNDA: Both studies also reinforce a grim reality, explains Regan Patterson. She's an air pollution expert at UCLA in California.

REGAN PATTERSON: What we see in study after study, and longitudinally over time, is that disparities persist where particularly people of color are disproportionately exposed to PM2.5.

BORUNDA: That feels very real to the group here in Fresno. Joe Lyou from the Coalition for Clean Air asks a question.

JOE LYOU: I'd like to - just everyone who has asthma, stand up - here.

BORUNDA: Seven people get to their feet.

LYOU: How about if your mother, father, brother, sister or son or daughter have asthma? Stand up - stay up.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIR SLIDING)

BORUNDA: Pretty soon, everyone in the room - about 30 people - is standing up. Araceli Sanabria was one of the first to get up. She lives in a particularly polluted part of Fresno. Weeks or months can go by with air pollution levels higher than the EPA standards. Two of her kids already suffer from breathing issues.

ARACELI SANABRIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BORUNDA: Sanabria said her daughter has asthma, and her son is developing symptoms. She wants the city to put more parks and green spaces in her neighborhood, like there are in more affluent parts of the city.

SANABRIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BORUNDA: In contrast, she says, her neighborhood is full of industrial plants and warehouses with diesel trucks driving in and out. And, she says...

SANABRIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BORUNDA: ...There are new industrial projects being proposed, so she's interested in the EPA's new rules. But Sanabria says she'll reserve judgment until she sees the air pollution in her own neighborhood get better.

I'm Alejandra Borunda for NPR News in Fresno, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT SLATER SONG, "4 LEAF CLOVER")

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