Joro Walker and Kathleen McKee: Utahns need to tell the EPA to strengthen rules on PM2.5 pollution

We have a chance to make our voices heard and protect the air our families breathe.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Poor air quality obscures the Oquirrh Mountains and downtown Salt Lake City, as seen from the University of Utah on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.

In Utah’s recent cold and snowy winter, and as with so many winters past, we experienced predictable spikes in fine particulate matter (PM2.5) or soot pollution. These days of living under a brown cloud dictate what we do day to day, whether we take a morning jog, allow our children to play outside or watch our loved ones suffer asthma attacks.

But these days of acute air pollution also mean lasting stress and trauma for Utah families and communities. Fine particulate matter is extremely small and easily inhaled, and can become embedded in our lungs and pass into the bloodstream, where it affects nearly every organ in our body.

Exposure to acute PM2.5 levels can cause premature death from respiratory and heart disease, as well as increased infant mortality and asthma severity in children. Studies link short-term exposure to mental health impacts, including increased anxiety and risk of suicide.

National standards that set limits on the amount of PM2.5 in the air should serve to make sure we breathe as little PM2.5 as possible. Current standards are not doing that — but we have a chance to improve them. These include annual standards, which cap pollution exposure in a year, and 24-hour standards, which limit pollution exposure within a single day. Both standards matter, because both long-term and short-term exposure to soot pollution have profound consequences for our health.

In 2020, the EPA proposed to leave its national PM2.5 standards unchanged, but medical and air quality experts, as well as environmental organizations — including WRA — pushed back. Now, the agency has proposed to lower the level of acceptable annual soot pollution while leaving the 24-hour standards unchanged.

While this is a step in the right direction, the current proposal is not acceptable. The EPA’s own independent science advisors have recommended that the 24-hour standard for PM2.5 be strengthened to between 25-30 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3), an improvement from the current 35 µg/m3 standard. Based on current standards, many days we think are “green air” days are actually “yellow air” days. We need to set the standards in such a way that they truly promote our health.

The EPA’s insufficient proposal fails to mitigate the deadly impacts of soot pollution, especially in overburdened communities already suffering unacceptable environmental injustices. It’s a death sentence for nearly 20,000 people annually.

For the families and communities experiencing these health impacts, the importance of addressing short-term spikes in air pollution is clear. If you are the parent of a child with asthma who has to be rushed to the emergency room on a day when there’s a spike in air pollution, then you know that addressing our short-term exposure to air pollution really matters.

In the United States, populations of color and those who experience low income bear a disproportionate burden of health impacts associated with PM2.5 exposure. Close to home, a University of Utah study found that Salt Lake County schools with predominantly minority students were disproportionately exposed to worse levels of PM2.5 during days with elevated air pollution levels and on relatively clean days. Another University of Utah study concluded that this increased short-term exposure had a disproportionate impact on math and English test scores for third graders.

We should not have to live this way. Utah is renowned as a family-friendly state. We have a chance to make our voices heard. The EPA is accepting public comment on the revision of its PM2.5 standards until March 28.

There is still an opportunity to change these standards and improve the lives of the 132 million Americans exposed to harmful levels of soot. We urge the EPA to listen closely to the public, medical professionals, scientists and environmental experts before making its final rule.

Joro Walker

Joro Walker is Western Resource Advocates’ general counsel and leads the organization’s air quality work. She lives in Salt Lake County.

Kathleen McKee

Kathleen McKee, M.D., MPH, is a neurologist at Intermountain Health in Salt Lake City.