Public health experts and environmental justice advocates have been calling for years for the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten its standards on soot, a deadly air pollutant that has been associated with higher COVID-19 death rates.
But the Trump administration kept its brand strong on Monday, rejecting the tougher regulations, which will keep thresholds for fine particle pollution at the same level for the next five years, reports The Washington Post:
The agency retained the current thresholds for fine particle pollution for another five years, despite mounting evidence linking air pollution with illness and death. In its decision, the EPA maintained that the Obama-era levels, set in 2012, are adequately protective of human health. Agency scientists had recommended lowering the annual particulate matter standard to between 8 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter in a draft report last year, citing estimates that reducing the limit to 9 could save between 9,050 and 34,600 lives a year.
Dominique Browning, co-founder and the head of the advocacy group Moms Clean Air Force, told the Post the EPA decision “flies in the face of good science and good public health. It is outrageous.”
While the regulations are in line with the threshold set during the Obama administration, soot—the most widespread of America’s deadly air pollutants—can still cause illness and death at levels below federal air quality standards, reports The Scientific American. A number of studies released since 2012 have also underscored the negative health impacts of air pollution, chronicling the disproportionate harm soot poses to nonwhite communities, in particular.
Soot is emitted a number of ways, from industrial facilities and incinerators to highways, where nonwhite communities are more likely to be situated.
Models from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that Asian Americans were, on average, more likely to be exposed to soot particulate matter concentrations from vehicle tailpipes, at a rate 34 percent higher than the average rate for all Americans, reports the Scientific American. Black Americans and Latinx were also more likely to be exposed to soot than the “average” American, at 24 percent and 23 percent.
This racialized pattern can be seen in a number of other studies.
A 2017 analysis found that Black people were three times more likely to die from soot exposure than other Americans, while a 2019 study found that Black and Latinx people were more likely to be exposed to air pollution, despite white people being the most likely to consume the goods and services responsible for driving that pollution.
Long-term exposure to air pollution has been linked to a number of serious health issues, especially when people who are exposed have other underlying health conditions, like diabetes or asthma. Most recently, a nationwide study conducted earlier this year found a clear relationship between areas that had high rates of particulate matter (also known as PM 2.5) and higher COVID-19 death rates.
These facts of American life—that Black Americans are more likely to live in “fenceline” communities with higher exposure rates to air pollution, and that the health impacts from such environments make them more vulnerable to a variety of illnesses—are why public health experts agree that higher rates of COVID death among African Americans are rooted in systemic racism, not lapses in personal responsibility.
“We know that when you inhale fine particulate matter, they penetrate very deep into your lungs, and they can actually get into your bloodstream, and they initiate a form of inflammation that can cause pneumonia and cardiovascular disease,” said Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, according to the Scientific American.
“If you’re living in a county and you’re breathing polluted air for a very long time, even absent COVID, we know that your lungs are inflamed,” Dominici said. “After you contract COVID, your ability to respond to the inflammatory nature of COVID is severely compromised because your lungs already have inflammation.”
While COVID has increased the urgency to tackle soot and other air pollutants more aggressively, it’s clear that long-term exposure has been wearing on the health of America’s most vulnerable for generations, with people of color bearing the brunt of that pain.