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  • Writer's pictureEnvironmental Health Project

Stronger Standards for Particulate Matter Will Help to Safeguard Public Health

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced the finalization of more robust standards aimed at reducing fine particulate matter (PM2.5). This new set of standards is a step in the right direction for public health, especially in areas impacted by the oil and gas industry.

PM2.5 is emitted from various sources including industrial processes, vehicle emissions, and the combustion of fossil fuels. Shale gas development (SGD) increases a community’s exposure to PM2.5 by bringing all of these activities, typically understood as urban problems, into rural and suburban areas. Diesel exhaust produced by truck and construction vehicle trips to shale gas sites, drilling and fracturing machinery fueled by diesel and shale gas, methane flaring, and airborne silica sand are all sources of dangerous particulate matter. Exposure to PM from SGD and other sources may impair lung function, aggravate asthma symptoms, cause irregular heartbeat and heart attacks, and lead to premature death in those with heart and lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

According to the EPA, the finalized standards—which strengthen the annual health-based national ambient air quality standard from the current level of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to 9 micrograms per cubic meter—represent a significant enhancement in protecting public health. The stricter standards will prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths per year when the new rules take effect. Additionally, EPA estimates the standards will save 290,000 lost workdays annually, yielding up to $46 billion in net health benefits in 2032. To further illustrate the return on investing in public health by reducing fine particulate pollution, EPA calculates that every dollar spent could produce as much as $77 in human health benefits.

“This final air quality standard will save lives and make all people healthier, especially within America’s most vulnerable and overburdened communities,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “Cleaner air means that our children have brighter futures, and people can live more productive and active lives, improving our ability to grow and develop as a nation.”

“Notably, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, where EHP is headquartered, is among the counties that do not currently meet the annual PM2.5 standard of 9 ug/m3 according to EPA’s 2020-2022 data,” said Nathan Deron, EHP’s program manager. “We look forward to working with local, state, and federal regulators to support communities in advocating for the attainment of these more stringent limits.”

Along with reducing the overall limit for PM2.5, EPA will also modify its monitoring network design criteria to take the proximity of vulnerable populations into account. Data collected from overburdened areas prone to adverse health outcomes will inform future reviews of air quality standards.

The EPA’s finalization of stronger standards for PM2.5 pollution is a significant part of the ongoing effort to safeguard public health and the environment. By setting more stringent limits on fine particulate emissions and enhancing air quality monitoring requirements, the EPA aims to mitigate the adverse health impacts of air pollution and promote environmental justice. Continued collaboration between government agencies, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders will be crucial for translating these regulatory advancements into tangible improvements in air quality and public health outcomes nationwide.


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