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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened its regulations for fine particle pollution, or soot 鈥 a harmful and sometimes deadly form of air pollution that disproportionately affects Black Americans. Environmental and public health advocates hailed Tuesday鈥檚 announcement as a win for both health and justice.

The EPA estimates that the change will prevent roughly 4,500 premature deaths nationwide in 2032 鈥 when states must start meeting the new standard. Regulations limiting fine particle pollution had not been updated for 12 years.

鈥淭his new standard 鈥 will save lives based on scientific evidence. That is the bottom line,鈥 said , a physician and former president of the , in a statement. 

According to the EPA鈥檚 analysis of air quality data from 2020 through 2022, the District and every county in Virginia and Maryland currently meet the new standard. 

Like many federal rules, the specifics can sound incomprehensibly technical: the 鈥渁nnual health-based national ambient air quality standard鈥 for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) will now be 9 micrograms per cubic meter, instead of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. But for , who leads , the change is 鈥減ersonal.鈥

鈥淲hen my great grandparents landed in Memphis from Texas in the 1940s, they came to a once-thriving Black community called the Riverside Community, which is now overburdened with extreme air quality pollution as an oil refinery is in the middle of this majority-Black neighborhood,鈥 Adams said on a press call Tuesday. 

鈥淪hortly after I was born, I suffered from severe sinus infections which later transitioned into lifelong chronic asthma,鈥 Adams continued. 鈥淏oth my grandmother and great-grandmother suffered from chronic asthma as well. And December 2022, my father, also from the Riverside Community, died at only the age of 65 years old from a heart attack, which has a direct connection to air pollution.鈥

A Threat to Public Health

Soot pollution is made up of tiny particles 鈥 about one-thirtieth the width of a hair 鈥 that can make their way into people鈥檚 lungs and bloodstream. Researchers have linked fine particle pollution with a whole host of health harms, including cancer, strokes, asthma attacks, heart attacks, lung issues and infant mortality. Seniors, children and pregnant women face particularly high risks. 

Studies suggest in the U.S., and people of color experience significantly more exposure than white people. Common sources of fine particle pollution include wildfire smoke, fossil fuel-burning power plants, industrial factories and busy roads. 

鈥淥therwise healthy children can now have onset of asthma and respiratory issues by spending time living, going to school鈥 by [high-traffic] thoroughfares,鈥 Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, head of the Children鈥檚 Environmental Health Network, said at a Feb. 8 panel on environmental hazards and young people鈥檚 health. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 just unacceptable.鈥 

Pushback From Industry 鈥 And From Some Activists

Several major business groups have opposed the more stringent regulations, warning that the stricter limits will prevent economic growth and eliminate manufacturing jobs. The , the biggest business lobby in the country, that the new rule would 鈥済rind permits to a halt.鈥 The called the standards 鈥渞adical.鈥 

鈥淎s counties and cities find themselves in nonattainment, this grave mistake will drive investment away from the United States, derail permitting and weaken the economy for all,鈥 the manufacturing lobby group said. 

The Chamber of Commerce (over 500 nationwide) would not currently meet the new standards. However, identified just 59 counties that would not be in compliance. 

One major difference? The EPA looked at air quality data from 2020 to 2022, so this year鈥檚 unprecedented wildfire smoke problems didn鈥檛 impact the results. States can ask the EPA to exclude wildfire smoke from their data, though the agency doesn鈥檛 always grant those requests. 

have pushed back against the industry narrative, arguing that previous changes to environmental regulations have not caused the economic fallout routinely predicted by business leaders. The EPA projected that compliance with the stronger soot rule could cost the industry up to $590 million annually in 2032 鈥 but it could save up to $46 billion in healthcare costs and prevent up to 290,000 lost workdays. 

On the other side of the spectrum, some environmental justice and public health groups, including and the , expressed disappointment that the agency had not gone further with the regulation. 

Based on a 2022 report from a scientific advisory committee to the EPA, activists had hoped to see the new standard set at 8 micrograms per cubic meter instead of 9.

鈥淲e won鈥檛 stop fighting until we stamp out all forms of air pollution that make our communities sick and cut our lives short,鈥 Anastasia Gordon, WE ACT鈥檚 federal policy director, said.

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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