EPA Advances Critical Public Health Protections by Strengthening Particulate Matter Standards; Further Action Still Required

Statements by Chitra Kumar, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Beto Lugo Martinez, Environmental and Climate Justice Leader and Member of Coming Clean

Published Feb 6, 2024

WASHINGTON (February 7, 2024)—Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized updates to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for particulate matter. Fine particulate matter, also referred to as PM2.5 or soot, causes severe harm to human health, including asthma, heart disease, and even premature death. People of color and people with low incomes suffer a disproportionate impact from this pollution. New PM2.5 standards are vital to protect public health, though EPA could have gone even further in setting strong standards, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

In 2019, UCS convened a panel of 20 air quality experts after their dismissal by then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Those experts found that existing PM2.5 standards were not strong enough to protect public health.

Below is a statement by Chitra Kumar, managing director of the Climate & Energy Program at UCS.

“Particulate matter pollution is devastating in its reach and in its effects on people. We know the sources and we know the solutions—but again and again, polluters have shown that in the absence of rigorous standards, they will continue to prioritize their own self-interest over the needs of the public. EPA has an obligation to set health-protective standards to limit the harm of this widespread pollution, much of which is due to the combustion of fossil fuels. New rules are long overdue, and today’s final rule is a step toward cleaner air and healthier communities.

“However, even with these new protections in place, too many people’s health will still be at risk from dangerous exposures to PM2.5. The administration is right to strengthen these protections, and they’ve resisted immense industry pressure by setting a new standard—but the science is clear that the agency’s work is not yet done.

“The delays in updating this standard come at a steep cost, and lingering pollution impacts are too often borne by communities of color and low-income communities already facing disproportionate cumulative pollution burdens. Those delays are due in large part to the previous administration dismissing a key science advisory board and ignoring the overwhelming evidence that the PM2.5 standard was insufficient.

“EPA has a responsibility to not just set this standard, but to monitor air quality in impacted communities and enforce the law against polluters who violate the standard. EPA must remain committed to following the science and its stated commitments to protecting at-risk communities by setting and enforcing standards that ensure people all across the country can breathe truly clean and safe air.”

Below is a statement by Beto Lugo Martinez, environmental and climate justice leader and member of Coming Clean.

“Health protections that truly protect indigenous people, people of color, immigrants and low-income communities, who are disproportionately harmed by continuous exposure to particulate matter, co-pollutants, and heat-trapping climate pollution, are long overdue. We must take into account ultrafine particulate matter, for which there is no health or regulatory standard. The science is clear—ultra-fine particles make their way into the bloodstream contributing to premature death.

“EPA action to strengthen the PM2.5 standard will not address the injustice of this pollution without enforcement and a robust review of polluter enforcement data, violations, and permits. EPA must take into account cumulative impacts of environmental health hazards on communities and identify steps to address them. The EPA needs to strategically place regulatory federal reference monitors beyond criteria pollutants, informed in direct consultation with environmental justice organizations.

“Many states utilize the Cross-State Air Pollution rule as a loophole to not implement, maintain and enforce the NAAQS and provide robust State Implementation Plans. EPA must enforce this rule strictly to ensure compliance with the standards.

“EPA must support the new standard with strong enforcement on polluters. The continued influence of polluters on EPA does not align or meet with the administration's claimed priorities on environmental justice. Weak standards and weak enforcement give a green light to polluters and the government to continue business as usual."