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How the EPA is cracking down with tighter limits on soot


The Environmental Protection Agency says it is cracking down on a dangerous air pollutant. But many public health experts say the EPA needs to do more. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: We're talking about soot, the tiny particles that largely come from smokestacks and tailpipes. Vickie Patton works for the Environmental Defense Fund.

VICKIE PATTON: It harms our hearts and our lungs. It evades kind of all of the defenses that our body has to protect us from harmful air pollution. It's a killer.

HERSHER: And some groups are at much higher risk than others. Here's EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

MICHAEL REGAN: Low-income communities and communities of color are at a higher risk for exposure with disproportionately devastating effects.

HERSHER: So less soot pollution would save lives, and the EPA sets the official limit for soot pollution. Right now that limit is 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air, which - sure, that number doesn't mean much on its own. But research shows that number is too high. Most scientists who advise the EPA agree that eight to 10 micrograms would be safer. The Environmental Defense Fund commissioned a study to see how many lives would be saved with a lower number.

PATTON: If our nation adopts a standard of eight micrograms per cubic meter, we will save thousands and thousands of lives every year.

HERSHER: Nearly 20,000 lives a year, to be more exact. So to recap, eight micrograms is the most stringent choice. Ten is the upper limit of what the science supports. Here's what the EPA proposed today.

REGAN: We're proposing a range of nine to 10.

HERSHER: Although Administrator Regan said they've left the door open to go as low as eight or as high as 11. The criticism from top public health experts was swift. The American Lung Association called the proposal inadequate. The EPA is taking public comments on the proposal. Meanwhile, many parts of the country already have more soot pollution than the EPA allows. That means cleaning up trucks and power plants now would save lives even before the agency chooses a new number. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.


Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.