Dail Chambers knows when the air is unsafe in her North St. Louis neighborhood. It’s when the sky “looks like a 1970s film,” she said. “There’s an orange haze over the whole neighborhood for weeks at a time.”
The haze is a mixture of air pollutants anchored by a high concentration of fine-particulate matter, sometimes known as soot or PM 2.5. Released into the air from demolition and construction sites, diesel trucks, power plants, and factories, the pollutant is so tiny that it can slip past a body’s defense system and infiltrate the bloodstream and lungs, triggering asthma and damaging the heart and brain.
Every year, the pollutant, which exists as tiny droplets in the air that are one-thirtieth the width of a strain of hair, leads to anywhere from 85,000 to 200,000 premature U.S. deaths. For the first time in over a decade, however, the federal government has moved to reduce the pollutant’s hold on American life. In early January, the Biden administration proposed a rule to limit the industrial pollutant by as much as 25%.
The proposal opened for public comment this week and will be available on the Federal Registrar’s website until March 28 under the identification Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2015-0072. The plan is being vetted by scientists and environmental officials across the country.
In Chambers’ neighborhood, which is 80% Black and marred by disinvestment, residents are exposed to more fine-particulate matter than 91% of the country, according to the White House’s climate and economic justice screening tool.
Hundreds of vacant and dilapidated buildings dot the area, often sites for crimes and turned into de facto landfills. But the biggest cause for concern, she says, is actually when they’re demolished.
“I am actively sneezing, and there is a constant tickle in our throats,” said the artist and environmental activist.
When the buildings are leveled — typically without community input, Chambers said — dust filled with lead and particulate matter — both small (PM 2.5) and large (PM 10) — sprinkles across the neighborhood.
“The pollution is so direct and aggressive that my elderly neighbor in her late 60s — she has asthma — she can’t go outside,” said Chambers.
Five hundred miles northeast, lifelong Detroiter Theresa Landrum developed her own tell-tale signs for days of bad PM 2.5 pollution: “Brown dusty air, black soot, and silver particles, they’re all visible.”
Landrum resides in Michigan’s 48217 ZIP code, which is home to a major highway, two steel plants, and an oil refinery. She believes her proximity to these toxic sites played a role in her cancer diagnosis in the early 2000s. Her home has been called the state’s ‘most polluted ZIP code.’
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation ranks Detroit as the worst city for asthma in the country because of its high levels of air pollution, limited availability of quality health care, and rate of asthma-related deaths. Landrum says she’s lived with the fallout of industrial pollution her whole life.
“You learn how to react to it to survive,” the 68-year-old said about navigating the city during bouts of poor air quality days.
For many Americans, however, adapting to fine-particulate matter pollution is not an option. The deadly pollution impacts Black Americans more than any other racial group in the country. While Black, Latino, and Asian people all experience above-average exposure to PM 2.5, Black folks are exposed at a rate 21% higher than the average American, a 2021 study found. The racial disparities are found across the entire country, regardless of income or whether people of color live in rural or urban areas.
The New Proposal
The Biden administration’s proposal is different from the regulations born out of the Clean Air Act, which regulates emissions of toxic air pollutants from specific industrial sources such as oil refineries, warehouses, and port facilities. This proposal, known as a National Ambient Air Quality Standard, limits the annual average of the pollutant from all sources found in the air in specific geographic areas, typically broken down by counties, metropolitan areas, or individual cities.
The new PM 2.5 proposal moves to limit the annual average of the pollutant in the air from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to between 9 and 10 micrograms. That means over a year, the average amount of PM 2.5 in the air in a community can not exceed between 9 and 10 micrograms. If a geographic area fails to meet the standard, the federal government can decide to enforce penalties, including withholding federal funds.
The rule would not lower the daily exposure rates, which currently allows soot pollution to reach 35 micrograms per cubic meter. The EPA argues that the new annual standard would guarantee that daily pollution peaks are also lowered.
The new proposal comes three years after the Trump administration rejected a more substantial pollutant limit from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, despite the EPA’s insistence that the 2019 rule would save thousands of lives a year. The EPA estimates that the 2023 proposal will prevent more than 4,000 premature deaths annually, saving the country $43 billion in health care by 2032.
Polluting industries have for years lobbied against tougher restrictions and are likely to challenge the new standard. Industry leaders in the construction, agriculture, and energy sectors believe that the current regulations established in 2012 already do a good enough job of balancing “environmental protection and robust commerce,” and stronger rules would hamper their economic output.
Read more: Air Pollution and its Impact on Black Communities, Explained
Is It Enough?
Marvin Brown IV, an attorney with the environmental law organization Earthjustice, says there are many benefits and successes behind the EPA’s air regulations over the past few decades. Emissions of fine soot have been falling since the 1970s, in large part because of tougher pollution standards, and air and water sources are generally cleaner.
“We’re a bit of a success story here on how these regulations can work to clean up the air and the water,” said Brown, who became an environmental lawyer after observing the harmful impacts of lead poisoning on Cleveland youth. “When I’m back home [in Ohio], I can go swimming in Lake Erie because of pollution standards. That was completely unthinkable 50 years ago before they were in place.”
Still, many experts contend the new proposal is not enough to evade the worst impacts of air pollution, especially considering its outsized impact on Black, Latino, and Asian communities. A 2022 study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that limiting PM 2.5 to 8 micrograms, rather than between 9 and 10 micrograms, would help prevent nearly five times as many deaths, avoiding roughly 20,000 deaths annually.
In January, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, the first Black man to hold the position, said the agency is still considering the lower threshold of 8 micrograms if community and expert input leans toward that threshold. The agency will also consider the higher limit of 11 micrograms if scientific consensus during the comment process aligns.
Brown argues that the federal government must take cumulative impacts into consideration, especially for the most polluted communities. For residents in communities that have been exposed to high soot levels for years, a new standard might not be the end-all-be-all solution because the pollutant can impact your health for years after exposure.
“The effectiveness of pollution standards can be very, very different depending on the neighborhood that you live in,” he explained. “The problem is that we’re not all starting from the same starting point. A Black community cut up by a freeway needs more direct intervention than a wealthy, white one.”
Landrum and Chambers echoed Brown’s sentiments. Both residents live in cities that are in the top 25 for PM 2.5 pollution, but they say there has been little targeted outreach from federal regulators and the average resident does not know much about their air quality.
“How can regulations be effective if there’s a plan and we don’t know the plan in place?” Landrum said. “If the public is not thoroughly educated, especially us who are struggling every day to keep food on the table, pay the rent, and keep the lights on, it feels like industry and the government are not taking seriously the issue of addressing PM 2.5.”
For pollution standards to work, Brown says, the government must take a more community-centered approach because not only does each community face different levels of needs, they also face different challenges in implementing solutions.
“We fight a lot about the standards, and then we forget about how hard it can be to implement them,” he explained. “Sometimes implementing a pollution rule requires making changes in the way in which we traditionally live.”
In a community with high levels of vacant buildings, like St. Louis, Brown said that the local government will need funding to train workers to follow pollution reduction practices when they’re demolishing buildings. Conversely, a place like Detroit might need funding to increase public transportation and bike lanes to lower residents’ dependence on cars and highways.
Chambers, who worked with her neighbors to plan 97 trees in St. Louis in 2021, says without a community-level approach, the federal government is missing out on addressing communities’ individual needs through “grassroots solutions.” The regulations will only work, she says, if residents “truly have a connection to the outcomes.”
“We all love our communities and homes, and we can show that we love the land and the environment if we’re given a shot.”
Representatives from the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, the Hispanic Federation, the Alabama-based environmental justice organization GASP, and Earthjustice have announced a plan to collect and submit more than 500,000 public comments to support a stronger standard to “save lives in overburdened communities.”