EPA Refuses to Tighten Regulations on Particulates

And stop calling them soot!

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in 2019 rolling back coal emissions regulations.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

After "carefully reviewing the most recent available scientific evidence and technical information, and consulting with the Agency’s independent scientific advisors," the Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it is not changing the current air quality standards for fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) and bigger particulates up to 10 micrometers (PM10). The current rules were set in 2012 during the Obama administration, and are supposed to be reviewed every five years, and in this case, it is not better late than never.

The New York Times and Washington Post call these emissions "soot," but that is defined by the EPA as "carbon dust formed by incomplete combustion." The Times calls them "industrial soot emissions" and shows a coal-fired power plant as the lead photo. However, the problem is much bigger than soot and coal.

Burning coal is an obvious problem, but its use has been declining for years, and focusing on it is a huge mistake because it is much bigger than that. One just has to look at the list of industries that protested any change, saying “significant uncertainty remains about the relationship between exposure to PM 2.5 and adverse effects on public health”:

"These are the comments of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, American Coke and Coal Chemicals Institute, American Forest & Paper Association, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, American Petroleum Institute, American Wood Council, Council of Industrial Boiler Owners, National Association of Manufacturers, National Lime Association, National Mining Association, National Oilseed Processors Association, Portland Cement Association and U.S. Chamber of Commerce."

You've got the car makers and the gasoline refiners because the biggest sources of PM2.5 are car and truck exhaust, tire and brake dust, and resuspension of dust in the road. You have the wood and forest industries because burning wood for heat is a huge source of PM10 and PM2.5. You have the cement industry because they use vast amounts of coal to cook lime to make cement. They outnumber the miners and the coal industry. These are the industries that have something to lose if the standards are tightened.

sources of particulate matter
European data will not exactly be the same as USA. Institute for Energy and Environmental Technology (IUTA)

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler notes that “the U.S. now has some of the lowest fine particulate matter in the world,” and it is true that levels have been declining for years, as the electric power industry moved to low-sulfur coal and then to gas, to where power generation is no longer the biggest source. Now, the major sources of PM2.5 are cars and trucks, from exhaust fumes, tire wear and resuspension, or the kicking up of dust that's in the road.

But the other thing that has changed is that researchers are finding out how bad PM emissions really are. We all used to live in a miasma of particulate emissions from coal, industry, and more immediately, cigarette smoke. It is easier now to look at the sources and study the effects, including whether it increases mental disorders and psychotic experiences, or contributes to diabetes. Most recently, a Harvard study concluded that it makes COVID-19 deadlier.

EPA data on reduction of daths
EPA

The EPA even published the data in their draft report (PDF here) showing how different studies all demonstrated a significant reduction in annual deaths going from 12 micrograms per cubic meter (the current standard) down to 9. Every one of them shows a saving of a few thousand lives, but there is no accounting for the reduction of disabilities and quality of life; the New York State Department of Health notes:

"Exposure to fine particles can also affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. Scientific studies have linked increases in daily PM 2.5 exposure with increased respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, emergency department visits and deaths. Studies also suggest that long term exposure to fine particulate matter may be associated with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease. People with breathing and heart problems, children and the elderly may be particularly sensitive to PM 2.5."

Will the Next Administration Turn This Around?

There's no reason the incoming administration couldn't turn this around and impose tighter standards; in their environmental justice plan they promise to "make decisions driven by data and science" rather than, in the current case, the car, petroleum, lumber, and cement industries. According to the Biden Plan:

"Biden will direct his Cabinet to prioritize the climate strategies and technologies that most improve public health. He will also direct his Office of Science and Technology Policy to publish a report within 100 days identifying the climate strategies and technologies that will result in the most air and water quality improvements and update analytical tools to ensure that they accurately account for health risk and benefits."

But he is up against powerful forces, and everyone should realize that this is a much bigger issue than just coal and "soot."