By KIM DAVITT
Most of us don’t need to look far to find someone we know and love who has lung disease. Perhaps it’s a grandmother with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) or a child with asthma.
For all of these people, particle pollution makes breathing even more difficult. On days when air is bad, those with COPD may need supplemental oxygen. People with asthma may need to take extra medicine and stay indoors. Poor air quality days can send those with lung diseases to emergency rooms. Even in Montana’s Big Sky, there are days in some of our communities when it’s hard to catch a breath.
A long-awaited proposal from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would provide some much-needed relief by setting stronger limits on airborne particles, or “soot.” Sources of particle pollution include diesel exhaust, wood smoke, fly ash and coal-fired power plants.
The proposed limits, called the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, ensure that everyone in the nation is protected based on the most current public health science. The EPA proposes to update the standards for particle pollution because the existing ones no longer reflect the current research. In fact, these standards now provide a false sense of security for those living in communities that meet them.
Particle pollution – a highly toxic blend of soot, metals, acids, dirt and aerosols – kills. Multiple, long-term, multi-city studies conducted in the U.S. and internationally give some of the strongest evidence that particle pollution can shorten life.
These and other studies show that even modest spikes in soot levels can send children, older adults, people with diabetes and those with lung and heart diseases to the emergency room or hospital. We now have ample, well-vetted scientific evidence that confirms thousands of deaths, not to mention heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks could be prevented every year if the standards were strengthened.
A 2011 analysis, published in a report called Sick of Soot, concluded that adopting an annual standard of 11 μg/m3 and a daily standard of 25 μg/m3, would lead to the cleanup of pollution that would spare as many as 35,700 lives every year. Meeting those standards would also prevent 1.4 million asthma attacks, and more than 23,000 emergency room and hospital visits.
Particle pollution has been linked to permanent lung tissue and airway damage, low birth weight, and lung cancer, in addition to its ability to cut lives short. Those most vulnerable among us suffer the most, and need the EPA to act swiftly by setting a standard that protects public health.
Children especially need EPA’s protection, as their lungs are still developing and will not stop growing until they reach early adulthood. We’re now seeing that the lungs of young people who grow up exposed to unhealthy levels of soot and air pollution often do not develop as they should, which can cause a lifetime of respiratory ailments.
Others paying a higher physical cost for breathing soot pollution are lower-income families. They frequently live in communities or work where air pollution, often from nearby smokestacks or crowded freeways, exceeds safe levels. A more protective standard will ensure that the sources that pollute their homes will have to clean up.
As we have seen since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, big polluters can be counted on to continue to try to thwart any healthy air advances that may require them to clean up. They like to say that the evidence is lacking. The fact is, we have roughly 10,000 studies all pointing to the need for more protection for everyone from particle pollution.
We have a chance to set the record straight and tell EPA that we want more protection from this lethal pollutant.
The EPA can and must set more protective particle pollution standards. However, without strong public support, the present, unhealthy standards will remain and the people we know who have lung disease, and millions more like them, will continue to suffer.
Kim Davitt is the Initiatives Manager for the American Lung Association in Montana. She is based in Missoula.