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Air Pollution: The Silent Killer

Photo credit: Freepik

By Leila Waid.

Air pollution poses a major risk to human health and is the fourth leading cause of death globally. Although air pollution regulations, such as the Clean Air Act, have drastically reduced the number of deaths and illnesses in the United States, there is still an unacceptably large number of deaths from air pollution. For example, two in five Americans live in areas that are above the threshold for safe air pollution exposure, as set by the EPA. 

Air pollution refers to particles, gases, and contaminants not found in pure air. They include dangerous material that is introduced into the atmosphere, usually through human activity, such as burning fossil fuel. The five air pollutants of highest concern – and those monitored under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards – are tropospheric ozone (ground-level ozone or the “bad” ozone), particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and lead. Of the six pollutants, particulate matter is one of the biggest threats to health. Particular matter is divided into two categories: PM10 and PM2.5. PM10 are particles less than 10 micrometers in size, and PM2.5 are those less than 2.5 micrometers. 

The World Health Organization has set the limit for PM2.5 at 5ug/m3 (microgrammes per cubic meter). Only 0.001 percent of the world meets this threshold. And in the U.S., the majority of Americans are exposed to much higher levels than that standard. Even more alarmingly, some researchers argue that there is no safe level of exposure to PM2.5. Various peer-reviewed studies, such as this epigenetic study, found that even exposure below the strict WHO standard can still cause adverse health effects. 

PM2.5 is a major environmental health concern because it is ubiquitous in the environment, causing dangerous levels of exposure for most of the world, and the microscopic and irregular shape of these particulates leads to them evading the body’s defense systems. Compared to PM10, PM2.5 is much more likely to enter the bloodstream. In general, the structure of our lungs – particularly the bronchioles and the alveoli – does a great job of expelling the foreign particles we inhale. However, PM2.5 can evade these defense mechanisms and cause havoc on our bodies and health. 

What are the health effects of PM2.5? The Health Effects Institute estimates that, globally, 40% of all Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) deaths and 20% of all diabetes deaths are associated with exposure to PM2.5. And in the U.S., it is estimated that PM2.5 attributed to 47,800 deaths in 2019. 

Air pollution is a silent killer. With the criteria pollutants, such as PM2.5, being invisible to the human eye, we don’t take this threat as seriously as we should. We utilize an out-of-sight, out-of-mind philosophy with air pollution, and most of us take for granted how vital clean air is to our health and well-being. Every day, we breathe in harmful chemicals from fossil fuel combustion and then don’t even realize the detrimental health effects of those actions. The adverse health effects of air pollution can appear as cancer, heart disease, respiratory issues, or a myriad of other medical diagnoses without the affected individual ever realizing the outsize role that air pollution played in that health outcome. 

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Pyrolysis & Gasification Exemption: A BIG Win for Local Communities

Image credit: book cover for “Evolution of a Movement” by Tracy E. Perkins.

By Stephen Lester.

In a major win for grassroots community groups throughout the country, the USEPA decided last week to withdraw its plan to relax clean air regulations applying to pyrolysis and gasification facilities. After receiving 170 comments mostly opposing the agency’s plan to relax its regulations, the EPA said that it needed more time to consider the many complex and significant comments it received. And while it’s being reviewed, the current Clean Air Act rules that apply to pyrolysis and gasification facilities will stay in place.

This mean that these processes will continue to be regulated on equal footing to incinerators, as they have been for nearly 30 years. Pyrolysis and gasification facilities are currently regulated under the Clean Air Act, and are required to meet strict emissions standards that include emissions monitoring and reporting requirements.

The EPA proposed changing the rules that applied to pyrolysis and gasification facilities during the Trump Administration following heavy lobbying from the plastics industry and the American Chemistry Council. The plastics industry has been pushing hard to get the agency to redefine what qualifies as an incinerator and to exclude pyrolysis and gasification facilities from this definition. Currently, these facilities are considered under the same rules that apply to incinerators. Had this change in policy been approved, there would be no air pollution rules or regulations that pyrolysis and gasification facilities would have to follow.

Over the past year or so, the American Chemistry Council has invested billions of dollars into projects that use pyrolysis and gasification to burn waste plastics. This investment is in lock step with the plastic industry that is looking for ways to address the growing quantities of plastic waste that is generated each year. In a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the annual production of plastic is expected to triple by 2060 to 1.23 billion metric tons yearly, while only a small portion (~9 percent) will actually be recycled.

The American Chemistry Council has also been working at the state level to pass legislation that redefines processes such as pyrolysis and gasification as non-waste. This is so that these facilities could be regulated as “recycling” facilities that manufacture a product, an energy, or a fuel than can be burned. In this way, these facilities do not have to meet the stringent air and water quality requirements that an incinerator has to meet. According to Inside Climate News, 24 states have currently passed laws that recognize these facilities as being manufacturing rather than waste management.

While this is a big win for the many grassroots groups, and statewide and national environmental groups that sent comments to EPA opposing this rule change, the plastics industry and its partners will not let this go easily. No doubt they will continue to push EPA to make this change. They have already invested too much in this effort. We need to continue to be vigilant in opposing efforts to relax the rules that apply to pyrolysis and gasification facilities. Congratulations to all who contributed to this effort!


50th Anniversary of the Clean Air Act

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, passed by the United States Congress in 1970. After 50 years of amendments, advances in research and technology, and administration changes, the UN Environment Programme takes a look at how the country’s air holds up today. Read More.