EPA recommends tightening airborne soot standards

WASHINGTON -- New federal health standards that limit the amount of soot in the air do not adequately protect the elderly and people with respiratory problems and should be tightened, according to an internal government report.

The findings could become the basis for additional pollution-control requirements to reduce the amount of microscopic soot emitted by diesel-burning trucks, cars, factories and power plants.

Such a step would put the Bush administration at odds with business groups. They have argued the current federal soot-control standards, issued by the Clinton administration, are based on uncertain science and have cost industry tens of billions of dollars.

The new findings are in a draft paper by Environmental Protection Agency staff and are being circulated for review by outside scientists.

The EPA soon expects to determine what areas of the country will have to impose additional pollution-control measures because their air is so dirty it does not meet the standard.

Even as the rules are being put in place, the EPA staff review of the latest scientific studies on the effects of soot on health has concluded that the standards may not produce the intended health benefits.

The 400-page draft paper says that since 1997, some scientific studies "have confirmed and strengthened" the association between exposure to microscopic soot and premature deaths, cardiovascular problems and respiratory illnesses. Such soot contains particles and gases 20 times smaller than a strand of human hair.

Furthermore, the paper says, in many cases these studies showed adverse health effects when airborne soot concentrations were well below the maximum allowed by the 1997 standard, particularly during days when the air is especially dirty.

As a result, the staff analysis recommends the allowable concentrations be reduced further, possibly as much as 50 percent for the 24-hour standard and 20 percent for the annual average standard.

The annual average under the 1997 rule of no more than 15 micrograms of soot per cubic meter of air might have to be cut to 12 micrograms to achieve adequate health benefits, and the 24-hour standard of 65 micrograms per cubic meter to between 30 and 50 micrograms, according to the staff paper.

EPA spokeswoman Lisa Harrison said the draft paper has not been peer-reviewed by scientists and that no new soot regulations are imminent.

"EPA will not base any regulatory decision on this draft staff paper," said Harrison. "It's very early in a lengthy (review) process." She said a final draft paper, expected next year, "will include recommended options for the administrator to consider."

Health advocates cited the EPA staff finding as a major development, supporting their contention that tougher air quality standards are needed for microscopic soot because it can become easily lodged deep inside lung tissue.

"This represents the best judgment of the EPA staff in their interpretation of the science," said Deborah Shprentz, a consultant for the American Lung Association. She said it reflects that numerous studies support aggressive actions to curtail this type of air pollution.

"New research has shown that even short-term exposure to particulate pollution can be dangerous for some people, particularly the elderly, young children and people with asthma and other serious lung diseases," said John Kirkwood, the association's president.

Industry spokesmen questioned the staff conclusions and indicated they are ready to challenge the analysis' scientific underpinnings.

"Of course, we're going to question the adequacy of the science. We'll be citing different studies, different results," said Glen Kedzie, an attorney for the American Trucking Associations, which led the legal battle against the 1997 standards.

Bill Kovaks of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said business opposes the soot rules "because of the cost of these programs," estimated from $50 billion to $150 billion. "You're talking about wreaking economic havoc."

In 1997, the Clinton administration issued the government's first standards for extremely fine particle pollutants -- those shorter than 2.5 microns, or one-millionth of a meter. The standards were prompted by worries about adverse health effects from these pollutants on the elderly, those with asthma and other respiratory illnesses and other people.

The Bush administration endorsed the new standards and made no effort to scale them back once the courts rejected the legal challenges brought by industry.

Last May, as part of a settlement in a lawsuit by the American Lung Association, the EPA agreed to finish the review on soot standards and issue new regulations if necessary by the end of 2005.

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On the Net:

Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov

American Lung Association: http://www.lungusa.org/

American Trucking Associations: http://www.trucking.org/

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