11/29/2012 12:49 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

Outdated Soot Standards Pose Serious Public Health Threat

I often meet people with chronic lung diseases like asthma, COPD and lung cancer who struggle to breathe day in and day out. Some must rely on oxygen and carry heavy tanks around because of the toll the disease has taken on their lungs. Endless exposure to particle pollution, or soot, only exacerbates this struggle: millions in the Northeast alone are living with some form of lung disease. Particle pollution poses a serious threat to all, but it is especially dangerous to those living with lung or heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and a number of other maladies.

The Obama Administration is on the verge of finalizing its long-awaited update to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter. The present standard, set in 1997, no longer reflects what the most current science shows to be protective of public health. In fact, the current standard provides a false sense of security for those living in communities that meet this standard. We now have ample scientific evidence confirming that tens of thousands of deaths (not to mention the countless number of heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks) could be prevented every year if the standard were strengthened.

The black smoke that spews out of smokestacks and from the tailpipes of countless vehicles contains billions of particles of soot. The body reacts to soot in much the same way it does cigarette smoke. These microscopic particles are easily inhaled and inflame not only the lungs, but all of the body's essential life systems. In fact, breathing in particulate matter has been compared to taking a piece of sandpaper and rubbing it against the tissue of the lungs. Particle pollution has been linked to permanent lung tissue and airway damage, low birth weight, lung cancer, and even premature death. Multiple long-term, multi-city studies conducted in the states and across the world provide some of the strongest evidence that particle pollution can shorten life(1).

Children, especially the 7.1 million living with asthma and those living in low-income communities, unfortunately suffer from the greatest disparity. Our lungs do not fully develop until we reach early adulthood. Exposure to particle pollution can hinder development and cause respiratory problems that children will carry with them for a lifetime. Low-income families too often live in areas with too many spikes in air pollution, leading to year-round exposure to hazardous pollutants(2).

The 2011 "Sick of Soot" report, which the Lung Association coauthored, concluded that adopting an annual standard of 11 μg/m3 and a daily standard of 25 μg/m3 would provide the most comprehensive public health benefits. Most notably, these stronger standards would prevent as many as 35,700 deaths from occurring annually as a direct result of breathing in soot -- almost enough lives saved to fill every seat in historic Fenway Park.

Knowing how many lives could be saved, it is simply unconscionable to ignore the facts. President Obama must ensure that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopts the most protective soot standard as possible. Anything less places the health of current and future generations at risk and stifles the push for cleaner energy sources.


1 Pope CA III, Ezzati M, Dockery DW. Fine-Particulate Air Pollution and Life Expectancy in the United States. N Engl J Med 2009; 360:376-386.

2 2 American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Environmental Health, Ambient Air Pollution: health hazards to children. Pediatrics 2004; 114: 1699-1707. Statement was reaffirmed in 2010

Jeff Seyler, is the President & CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast.