The Clean Air Act requires EPA to review the science and update the National Ambient Air Quality standards every five years to ensure the public is protected by the best available science. The agency failed to meet the deadline in October 2011. EPA’s failure to update these standards nationwide means that outdated limits remain in place even though they fail to protect public health. Those particularly hard hit by particulate pollution include children, seniors, people with lung disease, heart disease and diabetes, and low income communities. Without updated standards, millions of Americans will face continued risk from unhealthy levels of particle pollution. Stronger standards would drive cleanup measures nationwide that could prevent thousands of premature deaths annually, according to an analysis published in 2011.
The lawsuit, filed by the public interest law firm Earthjustice on behalf of both national, nonprofit organizations, asks the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to impose a deadline of October 2012 for EPA to complete its review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
In a companion lawsuit filed last week, nearly a dozen state attorneys general also sued the EPA over this ongoing violation of the federal Clean Air Act.
“EPA let this deadline come and go but did nothing to address a growing health crisis,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Cort. “Meanwhile, thousands more Americans are getting sick and dying from the air they breathe. EPA needs to act now, do its job, and obey the law.”
The health risks caused by breathing particulate matter are outlined in a recent study published by Earthjustice, the American Lung Association, and the Clean Air Task Force. The report, Sick of Soot, details how a reduction of soot in the air can prevent more than 35,000 premature deaths each year, decrease cases of aggravated asthma by more than one million, and save at least $280 billion in health care costs.
“Since the last review, we’ve learned a lot about how dangerous these particles are. It makes no sense to continue to base public health protections on outdated science,” said Janice Nolen, Assistant Vice President of National Policy and Advocacy for the American Lung Association. “A stronger particulate matter standard would provide more protection to people across the nation from dangerous particles. Strengthening the standards drives the action we can take to prevent thousands of premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks each year. EPA needs to finish its job.”
In 2006, EPA overruled its science advisors, who called for stronger pollution protections, and instead adopted the current weak particulate matter standards. In 2009, as a result of a separate legal challenge brought by these same health and environmental groups, a federal appeals court ruled that these standards were deficient and sent them back to EPA for corrective action. Since then, EPA has failed to propose new standards for particulate matter.
Airborne particulate matter is comprised of tiny particles of smoke, soot, metals and other chemical compounds emitted from sources like power plants, factories, and diesel trucks. Scientists say particulate matter, which can penetrate deep into our lungs, is one of the most toxic forms of air pollution. Particulate matter is also responsible for much of the haze that clouds many of our cities and parklands.
“These particles of pollution are a hazard not only to our health but to our environment as well,” said Mark Wenzler, Vice President of Climate & Air Quality Programs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “The same soot we breathe is also degrading the views, plants, and wildlife in our national parks. For the sake of our parks and their neighboring communities that depend on clean, clear air, it’s time for EPA to get to work and clear the air.”