This blog is co-authored by Taylor Bacon, Analyst, US Clean Air and Climate; Maria Harris, Senior Scientist; and Mindi DePaola, Program Manager, Office of the Chief Scientist.

A new EDF report finds that strengthening federal protections for fine particle air pollution (PM2.5) to 8 µg/m3 will have large health benefits and reduce air pollution-related health disparities in Black, Hispanic and low-income communities across the United States. That’s because these communities bear the brunt of harm from the nation’s most pervasive and deadly air pollutant.

The report comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under President Biden, is reviewing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particle pollution (PM2.5). The agency is expected to propose a new standard this summer.

Wide disparities in exposure and health effects of air pollution

The analysis by Industrial Economics, Inc. finds that in 2015, PM2.5 resulted in 120,000 premature deaths and 75,000 respiratory emergency room visits. Children and older adults are particularly vulnerable.

Disparities in exposure and resulting health outcomes were substantial across the U.S.:

  • Black, Asian and Hispanic Americans had greater likelihood (84%, 58%, and 113% higher, respectively) than others of living in neighborhoods where air pollution levels were above 10 µg/m3
  • Black Americans over age 65 were three times more likely to die from exposure to particulate matter than others.
  • People of color were six times more likely to visit the emergency room for air pollution-triggered childhood asthma than white people.

For decades, communities of color and low wealth have been targeted for environmental hazards that others did not want: power plants, landfills, shipping ports, freeways and factories. The resulting inequities in pollution exposure are further aggravated by longstanding discriminatory disinvestment, poor housing, limited health care, educational and economic opportunities perpetuating health disparities, intergenerational poverty and higher vulnerability to health impacts of air pollution.

The report shines a light on what communities exposed to particle pollution everyday already know: they’re surrounded by pollution sources that are harming their health and shortening lives. 

EPA can set protective standards which will provide health benefits and reduce disparities

In 2020, the Trump administration retained the existing standard for PM2.5 of 12 µg/m3, ignoring a large and growing body of scientific evidence indicating that this standard was not adequate to protect public health. Environmental and health groups petitioned EPA to reconsider this decision, and in the fall of 2021, EPA launched a review of the PM2.5 standards. As part of this review, EPA took stock of the new science since the last review and considered the policy implications of this new research. In their policy assessment, EPA found strong evidence that the current annual standard of 12 µg/m3 does not adequately protect human health and considered alternate standards between 8 and 11 ug/m3. The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), a panel of independent scientists convened to advise EPA, recommended a range of 8-10 µg/m3 for the annual standard.

EDF’s report builds on EPA’s analysis of racial and ethnic disparities in pollution exposure and health impacts under the current and alternative standards, and it supplements EPA’s policy assessment by addressing some of the suggestions made by CASAC for future reviews, including greater attention to risk disparities, expanding the geographic scope of the analysis and considering current PM2.5 levels in estimating the benefit of alternative standards.

The report supports both EPA’s and CASAC’s conclusions that the current standard is not adequate to protect health and finds significantly larger benefits of an 8 μg/m3 annual standard over 10 μg/m3

  • Nationally, a standard of 8 µg/m3 would have 3.9 times greater health benefits than a standard of 10 µg/m3 (18,000 premature deaths and 12,000 respiratory emergency room visits avoided at 8 µg/m3 vs. 4,500 premature deaths and 3,100 respiratory emergency room visits avoided at 10 µg/m3).
  • A standard of 8 µg/m3 would go further to reduce inequities in the health burden of air pollution than a standard of 10 µg/m3, particularly between Black and white populations. People experiencing poverty would see 30% higher benefits in terms of reduced mortality compared to higher income communities.

As seen in the figure above, even with strengthened standards, substantial disparities in the health impact of particulate pollution would persist. It is essential that EPA also takes complementary actions that directly tackle environmental injustice.

Fine scale data offers insights on disparities

In their policy analysis of alternative standards, EPA utilized regulatory monitor data and modeling at a scale of 12 km2 to determine exposures to air pollution and benefits of alternate standards in 47 major metropolitan areas. However, outside of cities, there are few regulatory monitors and limited modeling to provide air quality information.

To better understand current PM2.5 exposures and potential health benefits of a stronger pollution limit for every community, we utilized fine scale satellite, land use and emissions-based data that offer a clearer picture of air pollution. We found significant health impacts of PM2.5 not reflected in EPA’s analysis of 47 metro areas: PM2.5 causes an additional 83,000 premature deaths and 49,000 emergency room visits for respiratory diseases. Black people and people experiencing poverty bear a higher burden of air pollution health impacts with similar disparities in both urban and rural areas.

Fifty percent of the lives saved from a stronger standard of 8µg/m3 are outside of the areas evaluated by EPA. Critically, our report finds that communities outside of EPA’s analysis would see limited annual benefits of an alternative standard of 10 µg/m3–580 lives saved–but significant benefits of a standard of 8µg/m3–8700 lives saved.

The pollution data forming the basis of this analysis have been evaluated using monitoring data, and thus in areas where there is limited monitoring there is lower certainty in the levels estimated (like large areas outside of those evaluated by the EPA). This makes clear the implications of blind spots in air pollution monitoring. Our report indicates a substantial health burden of air pollution in these areas and large benefits from a strong standard of 8µg/m3. This can, however, only be validated and enforced by expansion of regulatory monitoring in these areas.

We have an opportunity to act now

EPA is expected to propose a new standard this summer and will take comments from the public at that time. It is imperative that the proposed standard reflects both EPA’s and the Biden administration’s commitment to environmental justice in that it adequately protects the people at greatest risk. This report shows that strengthening the National Annual Ambient Air Quality Standard for PM2.5 from 12µg/m3 to 8µg/m3 would go the furthest towards reducing this disproportionate burden of air pollution and is a critical immediate step.