Breathe easy, people. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken one more step toward improving air quality: a more protective standard for tiny, lung-piercing particles commonly called soot. At this time of year, the word soot evokes pleasant images of Santa Claus navigating chimneys. But the soot the EPA is targeting is the nasty stuff in our air that can make us very sick.
It's about time the agency acted. The last time EPA set a standard for soot was in 1997. Though the Clean Air Act requires the EPA, as a watchful custodian of the air we all breathe, to update health standards every five years, the George W. Bush-era EPA dragged its feet on soot. So environmental and health groups -- including the American Lung Association -- pushed hard in court. The Obama EPA missed a 2011 deadline, but the agency finally acted last week under court order.
The basis of the change is that scientists who advise the agency have figured out that soot can endanger health at levels lower than the old standard, an annual 15 micrograms per cubic meter. The new standard is 12 micrograms.
The soot-spewing culprits include diesel trucks, coal-fired power plants -- clean coal is a goal, but for now also an oxymoron -- and other sources. The health impacts from these particles, so small that they are able to burrow deeply into the lungs, include asthma and heart disease.
With every air quality standard, there are costs-too-much gripes from industry, including such groups as the American Petroleum Institute and the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which represents polluting power companies. But there's also science and a 2-1 public consensus in favor of a more healthy soot standard. Now, science has prevailed, and our region is among those that will reap the most clean-air gains from the EPA's now-final soot rule.