December 13, 2012

OUR OPINION: Stricter limits on soot pollution better for health

While greenhouse gas emissions and climate change get most of the airtime when environmental issues are discussed, they are far from the only threat.

The Obama administration is required by a court order to issue standards — perhaps as soon as Friday — for the level of particle pollution it is safe for people to breathe.

Vulnerable populations, including 115,000 people in Maine with asthma, stand to be negatively affected if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not follow the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community and impose much stricter standards than exist now.

Particle pollution, commonly known as soot, comes out of smokestacks and chimneys and is carried invisibly through the air. Tiny particles lodge in people’s lungs and cause serious health problems.

The standards have not been updated in nearly 15 years, during which time new scientific evidence has emerged to show that the particles lead to more serious consequences than previously understood. Not only does soot contribute to lung ailments such as asthma, but it also contributes to heart attacks and strokes.

The good news is that previous efforts to limit particle pollution  have had good results. A Harvard School of Public Health study has established a link between reductions in fine particulate matter and improved life expectancy in the United States between 2000 and 2007.

Adopting the higher standards could save 37,000 lives a year, according to the American Lung Association.

Opposition to setting these stricter emission standards predictably comes from the biggest industrial polluters. Having to meet tougher standards could cost them a little more, but they currently benefit from an outdated standard that disadvantages Maine people and businesses.

At the end of the nation’s tail pipe, Mainers breathe soot produced in coal-fired power plants in the Great Lakes region, even though we don’t burn coal for power here. That means we end up with the health consequences of that region’s cheaper power, while our industries have to pay more for their electricity than their competitors in other states.

The Obama administration has shown courage by toughening vehicle economy standards to battle carbon pollution. It should do so again.

It’s important that the EPA look at the evidence and set the right standards to limit soot.

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