In a move it says will improve the health of millions of people and reduce soot pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Feb. 7 that it is reducing the allowable amount of fine particulate matter in the air.

The final rule, an update to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), lowers the allowable amount of fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5, from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to 9 micrograms per cubic meter. 

Exposure to airborne fine particulate matter, also known as soot, is a known cause of asthma in children and adults, and has been linked to a number of respiratory illnesses and other health problems. Because production of soot is linked to industrial production, many lower-income and disadvantaged communities are exposed to elevated levels of fine particulate matter.

“Soot pollution is one of the most deadly forms of air pollution, and this affects our most vulnerable communities,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a press briefing. “The stronger air quality standard announced today is grounded in science.” 

Dr. Doris Browne, former head of the National Medical Association, which represents roughly 50,000 Black physicians and medical professionals, noted during the briefing that the tighter standard has numerous projected public health benefits, including avoiding 4,500 premature deaths and over 800,000 cases of asthma symptoms. EPA's Regan added, “Healthy people equal a healthy economy. We do not have to sacrifice people to have a healthy and booming economy."

Industry Pushes Back

But manufacturing and construction groups had already objected to the proposed lower limit, citing how millions of dollars spent on emissions-control equipment and other initiatives have helped reduce the nation’s PM2.5 levels by more than a third in the last 20 years. 

The EPA’s final rule has already drawn some protests from the industry. “This new rule strikes at the heart of the U.S. cement industry's ability to deliver on the Biden administration's infrastructure goals, as it would lead to fewer hours of operation at plants, which would mean layoffs, as well as less American cement and concrete at a time when the country needs more,” Portland Cement Association President Mike Ireland said in a statement.

Under the new NAAQS standard, states will have several years to put in place plans to reach the new PM.25 levels. EPA estimates that it is unlikely any state would have to have its plan in place before 2032. According to EPA projections based on historical sensor data, almost all counties in the U.S. are expected to be in compliance with the new rule by 2032, with only 52 counties not meeting the 9 microgram per cu meter standard. Of those 52 counties, 23 would be in California. 

However, a looming threat of withholding federal highway funding from states that are out of compliance could complicate much-needed infrastructure work, said American Road & Transportation Builders Association President Dave Bauer.

“Not only is EPA’s final rule unnecessary, it would also make it harder for many state and local transportation agencies to access 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law funds aimed at reducing traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions,” Bauer said in a statement following the EPA announcement.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, criticized the new rule as unrealistic. “To comply with this rule, states will need to limit development across large areas of the country, threatening manufacturing and energy projects, limiting economic growth and leaving millions of Americans behind to deal with the negative consequences.”

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said, “I applaud EPA for finalizing this strong clean air rule that will safeguard public health and the environment.” He had sought to tighten the NAAQS for PM2.5 previously, and in 2020 criticized the Trump administration for opting to not develop new standards.