Lawn mowers and leaf blowers make up a big part of Colorado's ozone pollution, clean air advocates say, and a switch to electric has big pluses.
A former coal-fired power plant in New Jersey will be imploded Friday, and its owners are expected to announce plans for a new clean energy venture on the site.
When you work on climate change, cognitive dissonance is a daily experience. I recently visited West Virginia to bask in the glorious colors of fall.
All seemed right with the world — normal in a way that can make one forget the existential crises humming along in the background.
I felt the same jarring disconnect as I watched the now concluded Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The people trying to hammer out solutions to this vexing global challenge are serious individuals who care deeply. Some have spent entire careers moving from venue to venue, making their best efforts to find a pathway toward a safer world. The negotiations are sober and sincere.
The cognitive dissonance arises because they have nothing to offer that matches the severity of the problem.
Carbon emissions might have been worse without this annual attention, but it’s hard to escape that the current pathway is essentially business as usual.
What is the return on value of almost 30 years of meetings? We’ve seen record-breaking increases in global average atmospheric carbon dioxide and little progress toward concrete support for poor countries that suffer the most from the climate’s radical changes, though they contributed the least to the destruction.
It might be time to strip away the parts of this annual ritual that have value and jettison the rest.
John Kerry, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, speaking at the Forests and Climate Leaders’ Partnership event, part of COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh. November 7, 2022.
The international process has produced breakthroughs. The 2015 Paris Agreement rejected conventional thinking to recognize that each country must find its own way to lower its emissions with steadily more ambitious targets. Its innovation was acknowledging that by working together, each pushing the other to improve, countries could collectively build the momentum toward progress.
Then came the Trump years. Progress as envisioned in Paris requires mutual trust. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord delivered a gut-punch reminder that agreements are not just about signatures on a page.
Post-Trump, President Biden recommitted to the accord and brought back John Kerry, who had built the coalition for the Paris success. But even Kerry’s credibility on the world stage can’t erase the doubts made tangible by Trump’s destructive behavior.
On one side of the ledger, the COP is an annual platform for the countries that stand to lose the most from mounting emissions. For two weeks, at least, they can make their case on a public stage.
On the other, the meetings have made those with genuine claims into supplicants. For decades, they brought their case to the streets and the side events. The remedies they propose, like taxing fossil fuel companies’ profits, are out of step with political reality. Their concerns finally became central this year, but the answer they got was, as characterized by David Wallace-Wells, a shell, “vague on all of the important points: who will pay into the fund and how much, who will distribute that money and to whom.”
The credibility of the COP is eroded by years of failure to meet commitments, with many wrong turns and the perception of slow bureaucracy.
And the unstated objective of wealthier countries appears to be to maintain their current lifestyle, only by changing the source of the energy that powers it from fossil fuels to more benign inputs. While efficiency has improved, the U.S. and similar countries continue as wasteful energy consumers. The West doesn’t seem to want to make the kind of changes that might cause a little discomfort, much less pain.
With limited progress toward the root mission of lowering greenhouse emissions, it’s time to rethink COP.
Most of the good news on climate comes from technological developments: the plummeting price and wider availability of solar; advances in wind; improved efficiency.
This suggests shifting from formal negotiations to a consultative platform that facilitates information sharing, financing and partnerships that might produce faster technological change. This would draw on the strongest parts of the meeting process, making the side events into the main event.
The hallway conversations are more concrete, informative and realistic than the negotiations. For example, the New York Times highlighted how entrepreneurs came together at the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers program to develop the Waterplan software that helps companies facilitate water resource planning. This model could be strengthened at COP.
Annual COP climate talks have also become a magnet for financiers backing the development of energy-efficient technologies. Regular meetings with that focus could broker partnerships that might not happen otherwise.
A redesigned COP could also be a place for high-level, off-the-record conversations. Leaders need to meet, but maybe the current model is too formal. Although Copenhagen in 2009 is considered in much of the environmental community to have been a failure, Barack Obama used his time to have unscripted conversations and infuse a sense of urgency. Admittedly, unplanned discussions with heads of state are an outlier. But climate has shifted over time to what is now an ongoing crisis.
More frequent if less formal meetings might better meet the urgency of a developing crisis, more akin to generals planning a constantly shifting war. And why not hold these meetings where the impacts on poorer populations can be more readily grasped — out in the field, so to speak.
One piece of the current process that works well is the critically important work of the IPCC, the independent scientific body founded under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organization and the U.N, Environment Programme. The IPCC is independent of the COP, but it provides the increasingly blunt, comprehensive and credible assessment reports used by UNFCC, policymakers and a world audience. These reports are widely seen as the most reliable sources of scientific information on desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. Even the deeply conservative U.S. state of Louisiana used IPCC data to prepare its highly acclaimed Coastal Commission Report.
A benefit of redesign would be to free the UNFCCC itself from the need for annual conference planning and allow it to be more opportunistic in the best sense, to focus instead on unexpected possibilities of achievement.
Asking whether we should reimagine this convoluted international process will not win me friends in the environmental community. I am aware that raising these questions can be misinterpreted by climate deniers and opponents of collective world action.
But not asking the question is equally dangerous, committing us to thinking that repeating the same routine year after year will somehow lead to a better result.
The real issue is whether we will assure a minimally habitable world for our children and their children. If the pathway involves stripping down to the essentials to identify real opportunities of change, so be it.
Ruth Greenspan Bell is a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
PITTSBURGH — A landfill company based in Pittsburgh has applied for a permit to open the first hazardous waste landfill in the state of Pennsylvania, which some fear could threaten waterways and increase air pollution.
Hazardous waste includes anything potentially dangerous or harmful to human health or the environment. It includes things like cleaning chemicals, paint and solvents, corrosive or toxic industrial waste, sludge from air pollution control units and waste from the oil and gas industry, including potentially radioactive substances. Federal regulations require these waste products to be handled and disposed of with special care.
The company that would build the new hazardous waste landfill, MAX Environmental Technologies, Inc., is headquartered in Pittsburgh and operates two landfills in the nearby communities of Yukon and Bulger. The Yukon facility, which is about 29 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, stores and treats this type of waste, but isn’t permitted to dispose of it on site, so any waste that remains hazardous after treatment must be transported out of state for disposal.
If MAX’s permit is granted, the company will construct a new hazardous waste landfill on its Yukon property, which is within one mile of 485 homes and about two and a half miles from the Yough School District. Residents in the area have spent decades fighting to close the existing landfill due to concerns that it’s too close to homes and schools and fears that the hazardous pollution it emits is causing health problems.
“We moved there as newlyweds in our first home in the 1980s, and shortly after we moved there my husband and I started to experience all kinds of health problems,” Diana Steck told EHN, noting that at the time, the landfill was owned by a different company, Mill Services. “My husband developed this terrible rash that was on his face and his back and arms, and I had problems with asthma and started to have issues with unexplained joint pain.”
After Steck’s children were born, they started experiencing unusual health issues too. She saw orange plumes rising from the site and said the acrid smells gave her family blisters in their nostrils and mouths. After reading a news story about the landfill releasing toxic pollutants like heavy metals, arsenic and chromium compounds into the air and water, she joined a group of residents who were also worried about the health impacts, and spent the next several decades unsuccessfully fighting to see the landfill closed. Steck has since moved about 10 miles away, but remains worried.
“The community has been deemed a sacrifice zone,” she said. “This new landfill would be even closer to homes, and it would be closer to Sewickley Creek, a tributary of the Youghiogheny River, which is a drinking water source for many people downstream. Everyone who lives in this area, even those who are further away from the landfill, should be concerned about this.”
More recently, public outcry erupted when MAX Environmental petitioned to have some of the waste it handles reclassified as non-hazardous. Environmental advocates say the company hasn’t been a good neighbor.
“The existing facility is chronically noncompliant,” Melissa Marshall, an attorney and community advocate at the Mountain Watershed Association, told EHN, adding that the facility ranks among the top facilities in the state for violations of its water discharge permit. “A company that can’t follow regulations designed to keep our waterways safe shouldn’t be trusted to become the first hazardous waste landfill in the state.”
Meanwhile, the plant’s operators told EHN that they run the site safely and take all the precautions necessary to protect the environment and surrounding communities.
“We’re obviously aware there have been exceedances of our discharge limits in the past,” said Carl Spadaro, who previously worked as an engineer for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and now serves as the environmental manager for MAX Environmental Technologies. “Over the last few years, we’ve increased the maintenance of our wastewater treatment system so we’re keeping it as clean as possible.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is holding a public meeting and public hearing on the first stage of the permit application on the evening of Thursday, Dec.1. The agency will also collect public comments about the proposed landfill until Jan. 20, 2023.
DEP spokesperson Lauren Camarda noted that this hearing marks the beginning of a lengthy and comprehensive permitting process and said only topics related to siting regulations will be discussed at this first hearing.
“The review process for a hazardous waste disposal facility is a prescriptive and multi-phase process and we are in phase I,” Camarda told EHN. “It is important to stress that if the phase I application is approved, there is still a phase II application that must be submitted that comes with its own comprehensive review process, including a public participation process.”
If the application makes it through the first two phases without being denied by DEP, the agency will publish a notice of draft permit or intent to deny, and there will be additional public hearing and comment periods.
“Normally they try to put sites like this as far away from people as they can,” Marshall said. “It’s very unusual to try and put a hazardous waste landfill this close to people’s homes… so it’s really important for the community to come participate in these hearings.”
PITTSBURGH—The site of a former coal-fired power plant northwest of Pittsburgh is leaking coal ash and poisoning surrounding groundwater, according to a new report.
Coal ash, the material left behind after coal is burned, contains harmful substances like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, lithium, mercury and uranium, among others. Exposure is linked to health effects like cancer, damage to the thyroid, liver and kidneys, and neurodevelopmental problems in children.
Although coal consumption has declined across the U.S., the power industry continues to generate about 70 million tons of coal ash annually, and after 100 years of burning coal, U.S. power plants have generated about five billion tons of coal ash.
The new report, published by the environmental law advocacy groups Environmental Integrity Project and EarthJustice, found that 91% of U.S. coal-fired plants have ash landfills or waste ponds that are leaking toxic chemicals and heavy metals into surrounding groundwater at levels that threaten streams, rivers and drinking water aquifers. It also found that many coal plant owners manipulate data or incorrectly claim exemptions to regulations to avoid having to clean up contamination.
“Coal plants are polluting the nation’s water illegally and getting away with it,” Lisa Evans, a senior attorney at Earthjustice and coauthor of the report, said during a news briefing. “At least 91% of them are poisoning our water with hazardous toxics and doing little or nothing to address it. This is illegal.”
The report ranks the top 10 worst contaminated coal ash sites in the country. GenOn’s New Castle Generating Plant, about 46 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, ranks sixth on the list. Groundwater near the site contains arsenic levels 372 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s, or EPA’s, safety threshold, and lithium levels 54 times higher.
Arsenic exposure is linked to multiple forms of cancer, neurological impairments in children and skin conditions. Lithium exposure is linked to kidney and neurological damage, decreased thyroid function and birth defects. The GenOn plant sits along the Beaver River, which feeds into the Ohio River, which, in turn, provides drinking water to more than five million people.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking core samples after North Carolina's Dan River coal ash spill in 2014.
“In addition to the Ohio River being an important source of drinking water to many Americans, people in the region also love to fish, swim and boat out in these waters,” Zach Barber, a community organizer with environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment, who was not involved with the report, told EHN. “This pollution poses real risks that are not being taken seriously by these companies or our regulators.”
The GenOn site, which has approximately 50 acres of coal ash landfill containing about three million tons of ash, is the only location in Pennsylvania to make the report’s top 10 list. It follows coal ash dumps in Texas, Nevada, North Carolina and Wyoming (two sites), and ranks worse than sites in Maryland, Mississippi, Utah and Tennessee. The most polluted site in the nation is the San Miguel Electric Plant south of San Antonio, Texas. The report, an update to a 2019 report on coal ash sites, also details groundwater contamination at 292 additional coal plants in 43 states.
“Coal ash waste is causing widespread water contamination that threatens drinking water supplies and the environment,” Lisa Evans, senior attorney at Earthjustice, said in a statement. “In every state where coal is burned, power companies are violating federal health protections.”
In 2015, in response to nearly 160 cases of water contamination and several catastrophic coal ash spills, the EPA established the first-ever regulations governing coal ash disposal collectively referred to as the Coal Ash Rule.
The rule required sites disposing of coal ash to post groundwater monitoring reports on their websites. There’s no federal database of these notices, so the authors of the report collected and analyzed the data to create their own. They concluded that many power companies are illegally manipulating data and monitoring to avoid cleanup requirements.
Companies are supposed to collect samples from clean background wells that aren’t near coal ash disposal sites to compare against wells on site. But they found that companies often chose previously contaminated sites to use as background wells, making it harder to find evidence of coal ash pollution. Many plants also leave large parts of a disposal area unmonitored, use inappropriate statistical methods to hide patterns of contamination, and falsely attribute the contamination to another source, according to the report.
“Coal plant owners are deliberately employing tricks to hide coal ash pollution,” Evans said. “People live next to these ponds. People drink the groundwater. Families use the lakes and streams next to these ponds. Leaving ash will make people sick and harm the water they depend on…but pennies over people has always been the norm where coal ash is concerned.”
Some plant owners, including the owners of GenOn’s former New Castle Plant, say the sites were already contaminated before they arrived, so they shouldn’t be responsible for cleanup, according to the report. GenOn’s New Castle Plant landfill was built on top of an 80-year-old, 120-acre ash pond, and the company is only claiming responsibility for a small part of the landfill, according to the document.
“GenOn must apply the Rule to the landfill as a whole,” the report concludes. “This approach is not only legally required, but also common sense – there is no way to restore groundwater at the site without addressing all of the coal ash known to be buried there.”
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spokesperson Jamar Thrasher told EHN the agency supports the EPA's enforcement of the Coal Ash Rule by checking compliance with reporting requirements and deadlines for closure or upgrades. In 2020, the DEP issued a Notice of Violation for groundwater contamination and asked GenOn to address it. The company agreed, and remediation is underway, according to Thrasher, who said the cleanup plan recommends two more years of groundwater monitoring to determine whether the cleanup measures taken so far have been effective.
GenOn did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It isn’t the only company avoiding responsibility: The report found that at nearly half of the plants causing contamination, owners are not planning any cleanup, and most have denied responsibility. Of the plants that have agreed cleanup is necessary, only a handful have cleanup plans in place, and most lack clear timelines and fall short of federal standards.
The report also notes that most coal plants are located in or near environmental justice communities (communities that are primarily made up of low-income residents and/or people of color), and that 70% of coal ash ponds that are dangerously close to groundwater are located in communities that are primarily Black or brown.
Both state agencies and the EPA have authority to enforce the Coal Ash Rule. In a few states, state regulatory agencies are actively working to enforce the rule, according to Evans, while other states rely on the EPA.
The new report recommends a number of solutions, including increased federal oversight to stop coal companies from manipulating data and improperly claiming exemptions, implementing enforceable cleanup schedules, closing loopholes for sites that are no longer operational, requiring testing of drinking water near coal ash dumps and banning dangerous re-use of coal ash (such as using it as a soil substitute).
“The first place to start is enforcing the rules we already have on the books,” Barber said. “But the only way to completely protect people from the health harms of coal is to leave it in the ground and switch to cleaner, renewable sources of energy.”
There’s no doubt that there’s plenty for House and Senate candidates to talk about as the midterm elections near: inflation, gasoline prices, Putin and Ukraine, Xi and China, race and crime, guns, education, immigration and more.
But all of these issues have crowded out – once again – the only issue that’s certain to be with us 30, 50 or even a 100 years from now: climate change and environment.
In Florida, things are not going well for the two statewide candidates who have spoken out more strongly for action on climate change. Democrat Val Demings is an Orlando-area Congresswoman who is challenging Republican Marco Rubio for his Senate seat.
Demings is a former police chief and, while the environment is not her signature issue, she boasts a 97% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters. Sen. Rubio’s score is 7%, and he has often voiced doubt about climate change science. Both numbers are typical for their respective parties, but it's worth pointing out that the scientific consensus puts Rubio’s Dade County home below sea level at some point in this century.
In Florida’s governor race, Democrat Charlie Crist (94% LCV as a Congressman), who represents a Gulf-side Congressional district, is challenging incumbent Republican Governor Ron DeSantis (2% in his prior Congressional career). Crist served as a moderate Republican governor who often clashed with Senator Rubio over climate change a decade ago. Sen. Rick Scott, now Florida’s junior Senator, succeeded Crist as governor and famously barred state employees from mentioning climate change. Then Crist switched parties.
Got all that?
As I write this 11 days before the election, pollsters tell us that voters in the state — arguably one of the most deeply affected by climate change in the U.S. — will likely send Demings and Crist down to defeat.
And in all of this, discussion of climate change has taken a back seat to the nationally chosen issues of the day.
Last Tuesday, Fetterman asserted that he had “always” supported fracking.
Credit: Governor Tom Wolf/flickr
In Pennsylvania, a climate-driven flip-flop headlined last week’s Senate race debate. The fracking industry claims to employ 80,000 Pennsylvanians, making it an economic powerhouse. Initially embraced by many as a benign “bridge fuel” to cleaner alternatives, many, like Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, came to oppose fracking as its environmental risks became clear.
Last Tuesday, Fetterman asserted that he had “always” supported fracking and those 80,000 jobs.
In May, he suffered a stroke, leaving some voters skeptical about his ability to serve. All of a sudden, Fetterman’s ascendance to a U.S. Senate seat was in doubt. And that meant that Democrats’ control of the Senate was in doubt.
And that meant that U.S. climate policy might be in doubt as well.
Farther west, the Mighty Mississippi is showing America its bottom -- the driest the river has ever been. Why is this not a major issue? The ideologies of environment and commerce agree so completely. Climate change has screwed both the river and its barge traffic, with national impact.
Or look at the Colorado River, with its bathtub rings of exposed rock and loss of hydro power. Can we talk about this please?
October 29 is the 10th anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. November 8 is the date for a surprisingly close election for governor of New York. Climate change, anyone?
It astounds me that climate-linked disasters have been out-shouted in campaign ads, rallies and debates. But they have.
PITTSBURGH—Air pollution from human-made sources like factories and vehicles is significantly more dangerous to patients with certain lung diseases than other types of air pollution, according to a new study.
Most research on air pollution treats all PM2.5 — air pollution particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter (much smaller than a grain of sand) — as equally dangerous.
But PM2.5 can be made up of many components, including things like sulfate, nitrate and ammonium, which primarily come from human-made sources like fossil fuel combustion and industrial emissions, but can also come from natural sources like soil, sea salt and wildfires. This new study is among the first to indicate that the sources of air pollution particles could determine how harmful they are.
“It’s often assumed that all PM2.5 is the same,” Dr. Gillian Goobie, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health, told EHN. “We now have a better idea of which specific particles are causing the most harm for these patients, and what the likely sources of those particles are.”
The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at the effects of air pollution from various sources on patients with fibrotic interstitial lung disease — a group of more than 200 lung diseases that involve scarring of the lungs. Patients with these diseases are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution than the general population.
The researchers used satellite data to determine the makeup of PM2.5 pollution and compared the impacts of exposure to different types of PM2.5 particles among 6,683 patients in three groups: one in Canada, one in western Pennsylvania, and one that spans 26 states across the U.S.
All patients exposed to PM2.5 above a certain threshold had worse lung function and were more likely to die than patients exposed to lower levels of air pollution. But the group in western Pennsylvania, who were exposed to similar levels of PM2.5 but a higher proportion of human-made air pollutants than the other groups, had a mortality risk about 6 to10 times as high as the others.
Canadian patients exposed to average annual levels of PM2.5 higher than 8 micrograms per cubic meter had a mortality rate about 45% higher than those exposed to PM2.5 levels below the threshold. Patients in the broad U.S. group exposed to PM2.5 above the same threshold had a mortality rate 71% higher. Meanwhile, western Pennsylvanian patients exposed to pollution levels above the threshold had a mortality rate about 440% higher.
“Not all PM2.5 is the same."
Credit: Jacek Dylag/Unsplash
“That magnitude of difference was really surprising,” Goobie said. “Our patients in the western Pennsylvania cohort were almost universally exposed to the highest levels of total PM2.5, and about half of it was made up of primarily human-derived sources, whereas only about a quarter of the PM2.5 the Canadian cohort was exposed to was made up of those sources.”
Western Pennsylvania regularly sees some of the dirtiest air in the country, with much of the pollution stemming from industrial sources, in particular from the steel industry.
The researchers broke down the PM2.5 into seven components (along with some additional components that couldn’t be determined):
“We found that compared to patients in the rest of the U.S. and Canada, patients in western Pennsylvania were exposed to much higher proportions of sulfate, nitrate and ammonium,” Goobie said. “That explains why we see such a different mortality risk attributable to PM2.5.”
While the study focused on those already experiencing lung issues, Goobie said she suspects “that PM2.5 composition is also a critical component of health effects in wider populations.”
“Not all PM2.5 is the same,” she added. “We should emphasize our efforts to reduce emissions from the most harmful sources of these pollutants.”
The researchers used the American Thoracic Society’s recommended threshold of 8 micrograms per cubic meter for annual PM2.5 exposure, which is lower than the Environmental Protection Agency’s, or EPA, legal limit of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. The World Health Organization recommends an even lower annual threshold of 5 micrograms per cubic meter, and has stated that no level of PM2.5 exposure is safe.
The EPA reviews emerging research on air pollutants when considering new federal air pollution regulations. In its most most recent scientific assessment, the agency concluded that the evidence does not indicate that any one source or component is consistently more strongly related to health effects than the size of particles, but an EPA spokesperson told EHN that Goobie’s study “represents an advancement in the science by focusing not on relationships between individual PM2.5 components and health, as has traditionally been the focus of PM2.5 component research, but combinations of components.”
While treatment can slow progression, there’s no cure for fibrotic interstitial lung diseases. For the most common of the diseases, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, the average survival rate is three to five years after diagnosis.
Goobie and her colleagues estimated how many lives could be prolonged if their patients weren’t exposed to PM2.5 levels above the 8 microgram per cubic meter annual threshold.
They found that among western Pennsylvania patients, eliminating exposure to levels of PM2.5 above that threshold could potentially subvert up to 70% of premature deaths. In contrast, eliminating those exposures in the Canadian group would only avoid 5% of premature deaths.
“Policymakers particularly need to be aware of potential risk imposed by industrial sources including the steel and coal industries, and should be advocating for, at a bare minimum, more stringent regulations on industrial polluters,” Goobie said.
In Allegheny County, which encompasses Pittsburgh, annual levels of PM2.5 rarely fall below the EPA’s threshold. The Allegheny County Health Department, which oversees air quality, has increased efforts to improve the region’s air quality in recent years, but declined to comment on the study, saying, “we do not comment or weigh in on the findings of third party reports.”
Patients with lung scarring diseases aren’t the only western Pennsylvanians vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. In Allegheny County alone, there are 25,928 kids and 100,546 adults with asthma, 70,844 people living with COPD, 100,456 people living with cardiovascular disease and 12,752 pregnant people, according to the American Lung Association.
“You can’t just dismiss hundreds of thousands of people who are especially vulnerable to air pollution,” Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a Pittsburgh-based collaborative of more than 50 regional and national environmental advocacy groups, told EHN. “The standards really should be geared toward protecting the most vulnerable members of our communities.”
Goobie’s study is timely, Mehalik said, because the EPA is expected to release new proposed federal limits on PM2.5 for public comment any day now.
“That’s the most powerful public health policy tool we have, which could lead to the most health benefits, particularly for those of us living in places like southwestern Pennsylvania,” Mehalik said.
The EPA is supposed to review federal air pollution standards every five years, but the standards currently in place are from 2012 because the agency declined to update them under the Trump administration.
The agency’s recent policy assessment on air pollution focused particularly on health risks to vulnerable populations like those covered in Goobie’s study, the EPA spokesperson said, and the agency is considering those findings while working toward proposing new federal limits on PM2.5 pollution.
It’s unclear what new air pollution limits the EPA could propose, but earlier this year the agency’s scientific advisory committee, a group of researchers and public health officials tasked with reviewing the science and advising the EPA on new regulations, recommended lowering the annual limit on PM2.5 from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to between 8 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter.
“To me, this study provides potent evidence for why these standards need to be lowered as much as possible to protect public health,” Mehalik said.
The study also found that in the western Pennsylvania and U.S.-wide patient groups, a higher proportion of non-white patients were exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 than white patients.
In the western Pennsylvania group, 13% of patients with high PM2.5 exposure were non-white, compared with 8% of patients exposed to lower levels of PM2.5. In the broader U.S. group, 14% exposed to high levels of PM2.5 were non-white, compared with 8% of patients exposed to lower levels of the pollutant.
“This indicates that researchers and doctors need to consider the intersectional impacts of pollution and environmental injustice alongside systemic racism and other factors that contribute to disparate exposures and health harms among our patients,” Goobie said.
This finding mirrors national trends: Across the U.S., Americans of color are exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 than white Americans, regardless of region or income level.
The EPA is also paying attention to environmental justice communities in its review of PM2.5. “Sharing the latest [particulate matter] concentration data is part of this effort, helping us give communities — especially those with environmental justice concerns — more complete information about their air quality,” an agency spokesperson added, noting that this information is publicly available through the agency’s Air Trends Report and its environmental justice mapping tool.
“Communities surrounding our most polluting facilities have higher rates of poverty, more people of color, and more people over the age of 65, making them especially vulnerable to the higher rates of pollution they face,” Mehalik said. “We need to invest in the health of these communities so families’ lives are not disrupted by illness and early death.”