New EPA soot standard could bring healthier air to parts of the Philly region

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The federal government is cracking down on a ubiquitous but dangerous form of air pollution. It means parts of the Philly area could eventually breathe easier — but the impact of the change is likely years away.

“I want to emphasize how good this is,” said Kabindra Shakya, a professor at Villanova University who studies air pollution. “This [will help] us — and not only us, but future generations — to breathe better air. … This is one of the great incentives for us to … leave them with a better environment.”

This week, the EPA announced a new, stricter standard for soot, also known as fine particulate matter pollution. It lowers the concentration of allowable PM2.5 pollution in the ambient air by 25% — a change EPA predicts could prevent thousands of premature deaths in 2032.

The air in several Pennsylvania and New Jersey counties would fail the new standard if implemented now. But federal officials say the earliest states will likely need to prove compliance is 2032. By then, only a small handful of counties in the Philly region would need to lower pollution to meet the standard, EPA projections show.

Particulate matter comes from sources including car tires, tailpipes of diesel and gas-powered vehicles, wildfires or junkyard fires, and industrial facilities like trash incinerators or power plants.

The tiny particles — less than 2.5 microns in diameter, or a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair — can lodge deep inside the lungs and even enter the bloodstream. The particles can cause asthma attacks, heart attacks, and cancer.

The new air quality standard reflects a growing understanding of these health risks, Shakya said.

“Now we’re changing our definition of safety, which is based on more research that’s come out,” he said.

But Shakya notes the EPA’s new standard — an annual average concentration of 9 µg/m3 — is still much higher than the yearly average of 5 µg/m3 the World Health Organization considers safe.

  • February 13, 2024
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