OPINION: Why we need strong air pollution regulations for better health

The Clean Air Act has greatly improved air quality for many Americans. But too many still breathe dirty air, especially in Detroit.
Ford Rouge plant. Photo by Amy Sacka.

Air pollution, specifically fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone, harms human health and disproportionately impacts communities of color, leaving its mark on urban areas like Detroit burdened by fossil fuel pollution from power plants, refineries, traffic, and manufacturing.

Currently, the EPA is considering air quality standards for each of these pollutants in ways that could directly impact the health of Detroiters.

Outdoor air pollution is estimated to be responsible for 5-10% of premature deaths in the US each year. While the Clean Air Act has gone a long way towards improving air quality for many Americans, nearly 4 in 10 people still live in communities where air pollution often reaches unsafe levels. People of color are 3.6 times more likely than white people to breathe polluted air. 

Fine particle air pollution not only harms airways, but is also correlated with a myriad of other health conditions, including cognitive abnormalities in older adults, an increased incidence of preterm delivery, low birth weight, and stillbirth in the U.S, and an increased risk of dying from heart disease or COVID19.

Fortunately, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering strengthening the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particle pollution “to better protect communities, including those most overburdened by pollution.” 

While a step in the right direction, the EPA’s current proposal is, unfortunately, not strong enough: 9-10 µg/m3  annually and a 24-hour range of 35 µg/m3

To ensure the health of all Americans, it is critical that the EPA at least meet the standards set out by its own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee: 8 µg/m3 annually and a 24-hour range of 25 µg/m3

Stronger standards would not be unreasonable since, in 2021, the WHO suggested even stricter guidelines: 5 µg/m3 annually, with a 24-hour average range of 15 µg/m3. 

While the EPA’s public comment process recently closed with over 600,000 citizens, medical professionals, local electeds and Members of Congress weighing in for stronger PM2.5 standards, it is not too late to write to President Biden encouraging him to call on the EPA to enact final PM2.5 standards which are even stronger than their initial proposal. 

Ground-level ozone, on the other hand, is a common trigger for asthma.  Detroit was ranked 15th on the list of “most challenging places to live with asthma.” 

A study from the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS) found that the rate of hospitalizations for asthma was at least four times greater in Detroit compared to the rest of the state.

It also received a failing grade for ozone, according to the 2022 State of the Air report, and currently fails to meet national ambient air standards (NAAQS) for ozone as set by the EPA.

Despite this, Michigan’s own Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) petitioned the EPA to discount ozone measurements collected on two specific days in June last year which exceeded air quality standards in order to come back into attainment for ozone. 

They argued that ozone levels on those days were influenced by wildfires from Northern Canada and therefore do not reflect typical conditions. While it is true that smoke from wildfires can have far-ranging impacts, including worsening ozone levels in urban areas at a distance, wildfires are also becoming more frequent as the climate changes and should not be used as a reason to discount measurements which would require more vigorous efforts to improve ozone levels.

Climate change will, unfortunately, only make air quality worse in communities on the frontlines of fossil fuel pollution. As Detroit experiences more frequent warm and humid days, concentrations of asthma-triggering ground ozone levels will also rise.

The good news is that climate solutions ARE health solutions. Climate change and air pollution have the same root cause, the burning fossil fuels to power our economy. By transitioning to clean forms of energy to minimize climate impacts, we will also improve air quality and, in turn, save lives, avoid hospitalizations and save untold healthcare dollars.. 

While all people will benefit, those who have historically borne the brunt of fossil fuel pollution will benefit the most.

Now is the time for the EPA and EGLE to call for the highest air quality standards. We all have the right to breathe healthy air. Fortunately, by transitioning to clean forms of energy, we will not only address climate change, but we will also clean up the air and improve health, especially for Detroiters who have been disproportionately impacted by fossil fuel pollution for decades.

These views/opinions do not necessarily represent the view/opinions of the institution to which we are affiliated.

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