Texas Clean Air Matters

Houston Exceeds Health Standards For Particulate Matter: More Work Ahead

Texans can breathe a bit easier now.

The Environmental Protection Agency today released updated standards for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), often referred to as “soot” (although it actually comprises a broader array of fine particles).  Fine particulate pollution in the air we breathe — some of it directly emitted from cars and trucks, some of it resulting from factories and electric power plants hundreds of miles upwind – can lodge in the lungs and cause a variety of respiratory and pulmonary disease, especially in children and seniors.

EDF praised the move, which will help secure healthy air for millions of Americans, including those in Houston where existing soot levels already exceed the new limits.

The Houston Chronicle writes that the new standards could “require cleaner operations along the Ship Channel” and slow expansion for some industrial operations.

The new annual standard will be 12 micrograms per cubic matter, helping to protect those especially vulnerable to air pollution, including the one in 11 U.S. children with asthma. Soot is one of the deadliest types of air pollution. It can cause heart attacks, asthma attacks, and even premature death. Recent studies have found a possible association with autism as well.

While the new standard was released today, Houston will have some time to implement pollution control measures in advance of a non-attainment designation, which, if to happen, would likely be in late 2014.

Thus, the region has an opportunity to take action now. EDF is working to reduce emissions for areas near the Port of Houston, where particulate matter concentrations are the highest in the region. Recommendations that we’ve made to the port include paving of industrial park east and use of shorepower for ships that call on the port, especially the new cruise lines that plan to call on the port. We’ve also called upon the port to establish more rigorous pollution controls across all sectors of operations as part of their Clean Air Strategy Plan. Stay tuned for more updates on our efforts to work with the port and regional stakeholders to reduce harmful fine particles.

Other leading health and environmental groups issued strong support of the new standards today:

  • A letter signed by over 650 health and medical professionals stated: Fine particulate air pollution is cutting short the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year. Studies have shown fine particulate air pollution is shortening lives by up to six months… Numerous, long-term multi-city studies have shown clear evidence of premature death, cardiovascular and respiratory harm as well as reproductive and developmental harm at contemporary concentrations far below the level of the current standard. Infants, children and teenagers are especially sensitive, as are the elderly, and people with cardiovascular disease, lung disease, or diabetes. The new EPA standards should be set at levels that will protect these sensitive people with an adequate margin of safety, as required by the Clean Air Act.
  • Union of Concerned Scientists: It is encouraging to see the agency following the Clean Air Act, especially in the face of strong industry pressure to ignore science again. The law is clear: the Clean Air Act requires air pollution standards to be based solely on the best available science regarding what is protective of health. Other factors, such as costs, can be considered when the standards are implemented. But it is science that should determine what level of pollution is safe for humans.
  • American Lung Association: We know clearly that particle pollution is harmful at levels well below those previously deemed to be safe. Particle pollution causes premature deaths and illness, threatening the millions of Americans who breathe high levels of it,” explained Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association. “By setting a more protective standard, the EPA is stating that we as a nation must protect the health of the public by cleaning up even more of this lethal pollutant. Reducing particle pollution will prevent heart attacks and asthma attacks, and will keep children out of the emergency room and hospitals. It will save lives.”
  • Natural Resources Defense Council: From President Frances Beinecke: The Clean Air Act grants Americans the right to clean air. The updated soot standards help deliver that. Now the administration should build on this success and issue carbon limits. Together, these safeguards would protect the health and well-being of millions of Americans.
  • Dr. Christopher Lillis, doctor of internal medicine and board member of Doctors for America: As a health professional, I commend the Environmental Protection Agency for finalizing an important rule that will result in innumerable benefits to public health. I have seen countless patients with emphysema and asthma whose health conditions have worsened due to soot pollution in our atmosphere. Reducing soot pollution also reduces tens of thousands of heart attacks. Today’s announcement is a breath of fresh air for doctors, asthma patients, and their loved ones.
  • Sierra Club: From Executive Director Michael Brune: The Sierra Club applauds the Environmental Protection Agency for issuing these life-saving clean air standards to protect Americans from life-threatening air pollution. Pollution kills – and it also costs Americans billions of dollars each year.  The EPA’s soot safeguards will keep dangerous metals and chemicals out of the air we breathe to save thousands of lives and billions of dollars.
Also posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, Houston / Read 3 Responses

Time Is Running Out To Set Stronger Limits On Soot Pollution

Credit: Mom’s Clean Air Force

This blog post was written by Molly Rauch, and it originally appeared on the Mom’s Clean Air Force blog.

On December 14, the Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to release a final standard for allowable levels of soot in ambient outdoor air. Moms Clean Air Force supporters have been speaking up since the proposed standard was released for public comment back in June, urging the agency to finalize a strong standard that will adequately protect children from the microscopic particles that lodge deep in the lungs and cause a myriad of health problems. These particles originate where fossil fuels are burned, such as in cars, trucks, and power plants.

I’ve written before about some of the ways soot affects children. But as we near December 14, I feel compelled to add even more reasons for you to help us keep the pressure on EPA.

  • Soot exposure specifically harms babies, by causing premature birth and low birth weight. Fetuses exposed to more soot are born smaller and earlier compared to fetuses exposed to less. The evidence for these adverse reproductive health effects is strong and growing stronger. A 2011 systematic review of the scientific literature examined 41 published studies on the topic and found that PM2.5 exposure was consistently associated with low birth weight, preterm birth, and small-for-gestational-age births. So, soot gets inside pregnant women’s bodies and harms our babies before they are even born. No consumer gizmo can solve this problem; no high tech HEPA-filter vacuum will fix this; no special mask to wear while behind the wheel will take this away. This is a job for big government, in the best sense of the term. EPA needs to take strong action against these invisible particles harming our future.
  • Lest you think that such effects on newborn babies don’t sound like a big deal, premature birth and low birth weight are linked to some serious health consequences. Low birth weight is a potent predictor of infant mortality as well as subsequent illnesses in infancy and childhood, such as cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, lung disease, asthma, and cognitive development. Similarly, preterm birth is associated with infant mortality and health problems in childhood and adulthood. But the harm doesn’t stop in childhood. A growing body of evidence suggests that low birth weight and preterm birth predict several important aspects of health well beyond childhoodFor example, low birth weight is associated with heart disease, heart attacks, and Type 2 diabetes among adults. It is unknown whether the low birth weight caused by soot is the same low birth weight that increases diabetes risk. But in a country like ours, where 12% of all live births are preterm and 8% of babies are low birth weight, and where these adverse birth outcomes disproportionately affect poor and non-white babies, I don’t need to wait for definitive scientific proof. Let’s take reasonable measures to continue to reduce soot exposure. We know it will improve the health of our population right now. And it just might have the added benefit of protecting infants from future chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes. Win-win, right?
  • Soot exposure from traffic pollution is hardest on poor and minority communities. Here’s why: Traffic emissions are one of the largest sources of soot pollution in cities, and the concentration of traffic pollutants is highest near roadways. Heavily trafficked roads are basically corridors of pollution in many cities, and these are the same areas where you’ll find higher density of residences, schools, stores, and workplaces. (According to EPA, more than 45 million Americans live within 300 feet of a highway.) African Americans and low-income neighborhoods are closer to major roadways, and so they bear the brunt of this pollution. Can you say “vicious cycle”? The new soot standard will require cities to measure soot pollution near roads. There won’t be a simple fix for this kind of injustice, but taking some measurements to get a handle on the problem is a key first step. Bravo to EPA for including near-road monitors in the draft soot standard. Let’s make sure we’ll be reading about near-road monitors on December 14, when we see the final standard.
  • Limiting soot pollution helps avert climate chaos, ensuring a healthier future for our children, our children’s children, and beyond. Black carbon, the main component of soot, is a significant climate forcer. This means that it absorbs sunlight, increasing the heat-trapping qualities of our atmosphere and raising temperatures. An important quality of black carbon is its short lifespan. It stays in the atmosphere for 1-4 weeks as opposed to centuries, as is the case with carbon dioxide. This means that reductions in emissions of black carbon would have immediate climate benefits. Less soot means less asthma and stroke and heart disease – but it also means less black carbon, and therefore less climate change, which is no small threat to our health. Air pollution and climate chaos go hand in hand. Improving one helps the other.
Also posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, GHGs / Comments are closed

The Costs Of Particulate Matter To American Health

This blog post was written by Dr. Bonnie New, former Director of Health Professionals for Clean Air.

Physicians treating patients with respiratory symptoms look for underlying causes or aggravators, and that includes exposure to air pollution.

If that pollution involves particulate matter – also known as soot – their concerns intensify, because of its well-known negative health impacts.

Many studies demonstrate associations between short- and long-term exposures to fine particle air pollution (PM2.5) and cardiopulmonary disease and mortality.

PM2.5 exposure is also associated with:

  • endocrine and reproductive dysfunction, including pre-term and low birth-weight babies;
  • increases in lung cancer;
  • increases in the development of vascular disease; and
  • increases in diabetes mortality.

In addition to aggravating existing asthma and other lung diseases, PM2.5 has been linked to retarded lung growth and reduced lung function in children, and even with de novo (newly occurring) development of respiratory problems in infants and children. Research also shows that reductions in PM2.5 are associated with reductions in adverse health effects and improved life expectancy.

It’s important to state here that currently, there is no identified level of PM2.5 that is known to not make people sick.

The groups most susceptible to adverse health effects from PM2.5 are infants, children, teens, the elderly, and those with existing lung and cardiovascular problems. Taken together, this represents almost half of the U.S. population.

Impacts to the Economy

When we see the large impacts of pollution on health, it’s impossible not to notice the financial impacts as well.

The economic impact of preventable illness and death related to soot pollution in the U.S. is staggering, estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars every year. The functional impact on the lives of those affected and their families is also dramatic.

As doctors, we deal with not only the challenges of diagnosis and treatment, but with the sadness, frustration and pain of people who can not live normal lives and children who can not enjoy just being kids.

It raises anger in physicians to hear from those opposing health-based air quality regulations on the basis that such regulations would be “too costly”. It’s not like the costs are avoided if regulations are not put into place. The costs are simply shifted to our patients, and to the health care system. The costs are paid for in lives impaired and lives lost, in kids who can’t run and play, in increasing hospitalizations and people missing work and school because they’re sick.

Shifting costs like this from polluters to the general public makes for healthy business profits, but sick and unhappy people. As patient advocates, doctors have good reason to be angry. The public, those current and future patients and families, do too.

Also posted in Air Pollution / Read 1 Response

Proposed Soot Standards Long Overdue

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed health-based air quality standards for microscopic particulate pollution, one of the deadliest and most dangerous forms of air pollution. Inhalation of these tiny particles results in severe health impacts, including premature mortality, aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, changes in lung function and increased respiratory symptoms. If finalized, these proposed health protections will provide a long-term framework for securing cost-effective emission reductions in these health-harming pollutants from the largest source sectors.

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) comes from highway dust, diesel exhaust, power plant emissions, wood burning and other air pollution sources, and consists of dirt, soot, aerosols, metals, acids and other microscopic particles.

EPA proposes reducing the current annual PM2.5 limits of 15 micrograms per cubic meter to levels within a range of 13 to 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

As I told the Houston Chronicle, this proposal is a “huge deal” and long overdue. The data on PM2.5 is even more compelling than the data for ozone. Simply stated, it’s one of the worst air pollutants endangering public health.

Unfortunately, it took court action to prompt release of these proposed standards. The Clean Air Act requires EPA to review its particle pollution standards every five years to determine whether revisions are necessary, demanding that the agency issue standards protecting public health “with an adequate margin of safety.” However, because the EPA did not meet its five-year legal deadline for standards review, a federal court ordered the agency to sign the proposed particle pollution standards by June 14, 2012.

EDF has worked with the American Lung Association, Earthjustice, and National Parks Conservation Association to strongly advocate for last week’s proposed action. In 2006, EPA rejected the recommendations of its own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee on the level of protection necessary to safeguard Americans from particulate pollution in accordance with science and the law. The resulting standards were successfully challenged in the federal court of appeals for the D.C. Circuit by the American Lung Association, Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund, and the National Parks Conservation Association. The court instructed EPA to take corrective action in light of the extensive scientific evidence of human health harms.|

Now that the proposed PM2.5 standards have been announced, EPA will accept public comment for 63 days after the standards are published in the Federal Register. EPA will hold two public hearings (Sacramento, CA and Philadelphia, PA) in July with issuance of the final standards by December 14 this year.

The science is clear and the health implications clearer. If finalized, the new standards will prevent 35,700 premature deaths, 2,350 heart attacks, 23,290 visits to the hospital and emergency room, 1.4 million cases of aggravate asthma and 2.7 million days of missed work or school due to air pollution-caused ailments.

Although long overdue, we look forward to implementation of the final PM2.5 standards, strengthening public health, enabling us all to breathe just a bit more deeply.

Also posted in Air Pollution, Clean Air Act, Environmental Protection Agency, MATS / Tagged | Read 2 Responses

Cleaning Texas’ Air Does Not Mean Catastrophe

Governor Perry, TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw and others were quick to assert that EPA’s new Cross-State Air Pollution rule would result in a catastrophe for Texas.  They talked about power outages and lost jobs.  They overlooked the saved lives and billions of dollars in health savings that the rule would bring not only for Texas but the rest of the nation. 

A new report from Bernstein Research shows that Governor Perry and Chairman Shaw are acting less like a public officials and more like Chicken Little.  The report shows that coal operations could continue in Texas if plants would run the scrubbers they have already installed. 

Yes, despite what you have heard, massive investments in new technology are not required.  Coal-fired power plants in Texas could simply use the technology they already have.

According to the report, companies like NRG Energy and American Electric Power (AEP) could even stand to make money in Texas, selling off SO2 allowances. 

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will save lives and billions of dollars.  Utilities have had plenty of time to prepare for this. It’s time to stop playing political games with people’s health and safety and move forward.

Also posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, Ozone, TCEQ / Comments are closed

Houston Chronicle to Rick Perry: “Stop Blowing Smoke”

This post was written by Colin Meehan, Clean Energy Analyst for EDF’s Energy Program

Houston (and the Rest of Texas) Benefit From the EPA’s Efforts

In an editorial today, the Houston Chronicle lauded the EPA for developing sensible rules that protect human health while keeping impacts to industry as minimal as possible. Specifically the Chronicle pointed out that EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) will save lives and improve Texans’ health with benefits that far outweigh the impacts to industry in the state.  Pushing back against Governor Perry and TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw’s unfounded claims of massive job losses, the Chronicle’s editorial board had this to say about Perry’s political posturing:

“We’re well aware that Perry is contemplating a presidential run, and that “federal overreach” plays well to some Texas voters, but clean air doesn’t stop or start at the state line. Texas emissions pollute the air of other states, including Louisiana, Illinois and Michigan, but our Texas air is in turn polluted by emissions from at least 12 other states.”

TCEQ: Fighting the EPA While the EPA Works with Texas Businesses

These issues were raised at a conference earlier this week, where I had the opportunity to sit on a panel with Chairman Shaw as well as former TCEQ Chair and current Texas Public Policy Foundation Fellow (a conservative Texas think tank funded in part by fossil fuel interests) Kathleen Hartnett White.   Both Shaw and White have long been critics of what they see as ‘federal government overreach,’ although noticeably neither were vocal on this issue when in 2007 the Bush administration declared TCEQ’s flexible permitting program was “in violation of the Clean Air Act.”  (See Appendix 5-6 of the link). Still, Shaw continued to use the EPA’s actions on flexible permitting as an example of federal overreach that in his opinion threatens jobs more than it helps the environment.  Read More »

Also posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, Ozone, TCEQ, Texas Permitting / Read 2 Responses