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Particulate matter (PM) is one of six main pollutants that are defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as hazardous. The term PM defines a combination of solid particles or liquids, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which appear in the air because of complex chemical reactions. The EPA’s efforts to reduce particulate matter pollution consist in introducing norms that would prevent the emission of PM 2.5 into the air, thereby improving the quality of air as required by the Clean Air Act. The paper includes evidence of how PM pollution causes harm to the environment and the deterioration of public health. It also explores the background of the EPA and its efforts to control PM pollution. A careful investigation of regulations suggested by the EPA demonstrated that through cooperation with local governments, coordination of workforces, and constant improvement of the existing norms, the EPA managed to considerably lower the level of PM in the US and worldwide.

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Keywords: PM pollution, particulate matter, air pollution, the EPA, particles, NAAQS

Current EPA Efforts to Control Particulate Matter Pollution

Particulate matter pollution is sometimes referred to as particle pollution and is used for defining a combination of solid particles or liquids which are found in the air. Some particle pollutants such as dust, dirt, smoke, or soot can be visible. Other harmful substances can consist of hundreds of different chemicals that are too small to be detected by the eye. Their presence in the air can be identified with an electron microscope. Experts assume that fine particles that are less than 10 micrometers in diameter (such as dust) pose ultimate problems to public health (PM10) (Brook et al., 2010). Smaller particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers are inhalable and cannot be detected with the human eye (PM 2.5) (“Particulate Matter (PM) Basics,” 2017). Harmful particles are often emitted to the atmosphere directly from a source, such as unpaved roads, fields, construction sites, pipes, or fires (“Air Pollution,” 2017). However, the majority of destructive air pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, appear in the atmosphere because of complex chemical reactions. These substances are frequently emitted by various, power plants, and vehicles. Though dramatic progress in cleaning the air has been achieved since 1970, air pollution remains the most hazardous issue that adversely affects people’s health and the environment. Therefore, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the authority of the Clean Air Act and in consolidation with local governments, local communities, and other federal agencies continues its work on reducing air pollution and eliminating the damage it causes.

The Issue of Particle Pollution

At present, the problem of air pollution is deeply underestimated. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) argues that the level of pollution in the major part of the United States considerably exceeds the national quality standard for six major contaminants. Although the level of particle contamination and ground-level pollution is currently lower than two decades ago, in numerous areas of the country, the situation remains unstable. Some fine particles are emitted from gaseous releases, while others are formed with the help of sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides. Moreover, ample scientific evidence demonstrates that long- and short-term exposure to fine particle contamination is the major reason for premature death (Brook et al., 2010). Additionally, other harmful effects of PM pollution include diseases of the cardiovascular system and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Scientists even link particle pollution to harmful respiratory effects, including asthma attacks. Some experts argue that particle pollution raises the ozone level, which can lead to shortness of breath. If the situation does not change, humanity may start suffering from lung diseases or even experience lung damage due to continuous exposure to PMs.

The EPA also considers such pollutants as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide as a cause of severe environmental damage. These byproducts of fossil fuel burning can also increase the incidence of such diseases as asthma, which may lead to increased hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses. Another nationwide concern is airborne lead pollution (“Air Pollution,” 2017). Nevertheless, after the adoption of the Clean Air Act concerning motor vehicle fuel, some areas achieved national air quality standards. Still, the condition remains stringent in some areas of the country that are situated near large lead-emitting manufacturing facilities. Lead pollution is associated with neurological and behavioral problems in children, learning deficits, and lowered IQ. For adults, constant exposure to the pollutant may result in high blood pressure and heartsickness.

EPA Current Efforts

All the mentioned evidence demonstrates that air pollution is destructive even when it is not visible. Therefore, the Environmental Protection Agency, which was established in 1971, introduced protective measures aimed to comply with the national air quality standards (“2012 NAAQS for Particulate Matter,” 2017). A significant advancement in air quality in comparison to data obtained in 1971 has proved the effectiveness of the EPA’s measures. However, the organization periodically updates its restrictions based on the latest scientific data. Research studies conducted in recent years have proved that even low levels of certain contaminants can damage public health and welfare. Therefore, the EPA has recently reexamined criteria for five of the six common pollutants mentioned in the national air quality standards. The current modernized standards are more effective in defending both public health and the environment.

Background

Based on the scientific researches that have been conducted since the EPA delivered its first review on particle pollution in 2006, the organization determined a direct association between particulates in the air and numerous health issues. In particular, an increased amount of PW is associated with asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, and non-fatal heart attacks, which can finally lead to premature death (“2012 NAAQS for Particulate Matter,” 2017). Thus, after a careful revision of the existing regulations, the EPA published the final version of rules in the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for PM pollution. As a result, the revised air quality standards complied with the Clean Air Act.

The EPA’s first revision, which concerned the 1997 National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), mostly focused on particles smaller than 10 microns. In addition, the EPA introduced some limitations for elements smaller than 2.5 microns (“2012 NAAQS for Particulate Matter,” 2017). However, due to evolution, the standards were revised and in 2006, the organization established regulations for daily and annual limits for pollution with 2.5-micron particles and a daily limit for 10-micron particles. Nevertheless, the major advancement in science helped the EPA to advance its standards and implement other changes to avoid various health issues caused by PM pollution.

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EPA’s Regulating Efforts

The main contribution of the Environment Protection Agency to improving air quality is that the association uses a scientific approach for the development and implementation of air regulations. It also delivers information to air quality managers and regulators to protect the air from contamination. Recent updates of the EPA consisted in reviewing the national air quality standards for the major harmful substances, such as ozone, sulfur, and nitrogen dioxide, and most significantly, fine particles. Recently, the EPA added new standards for carbon monoxide to the existing restrictions.

The organization also decided to label areas that both comply and do not comply with the existing air quality standards. In addition, the association is in charge of the implementation of different air quality criteria in the state. For instance, the EPA has recently proposed requirements for the application of present and future fine particle standards. Many EPA efforts are aimed at improving the level of such substances as sulfur and nitrogen. In those areas where the quality of air does not comply with the standard, the organization requires the government to adopt revisions of the state implementation plan, which would encompass required procedures to meet criteria within certain periods specified in the Clean Air Act (Esworthy, 2013).

Another measure of the EPA is its consolidation with the government. The agency establishes federal emissions standards for vehicles (new motor and non-road machines) to comply with the national standards and control air pollution. The standards also include national criteria for emissions from power plants, cement manufacture, and secondary lead manufacture, as well as restrictions for new manufacturing facilities, reservoirs, and policy guidance for state implementation plans (“Air Pollution,” 2017). It is estimated that in consolidation with the state, EPA efforts should help 99 percent of countries suffering from particle pollution. A vivid example of the EPA effectiveness is the change in The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards issued in December 2011 (Esworthy, 2013). This act resulted from the EPA restrictions and therefore aimed mainly to reduce emissions of fine particles as well as eliminate sulfur dioxide releases into the air.

In the 21st century, a new issue started deteriorating air quality. This problem concerns vehicles and the fuels they use, which are the main contributors to particle air pollution. The EPA attempted to regulate emissions from vehicles by issuing standards that are commonly referred to as Tier 3 (Esworthy, 2013). In this document, the organization assesses the vehicle and its fuel as a whole. Therefore, it suggests new vehicle standards and new gasoline standards for 2017. Overall, it is projected that with the help of EPA regulations, vehicle emissions standards will significantly decrease emissions from tailpipes, as well as evaporative emissions from passenger cars, medium-duty passenger vehicles, and some heavy-duty vehicles (“Air Pollution,” 2017). New standards for gasoline sulfur suggested by the EPA will reduce vehicle emissions. Moreover, they will make the emission control system easier and more effective. However, though the organization suggests various restrictions on fuel emissions, it also highlights that cleaner fuel significantly decreases emissions from the existing vehicles and enables the use of a new vehicle emission control system. Finally, the EPA argues that the suggested improvements will help reduce atmospheric levels of ozone, thereby decreasing its harmful effect on human health.

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Current Updates of PM NAAQS

In January 2013, the EPA published the final revised rule in the Federal Register to strengthen the quality of air in terms of particulate matter. The final updates were aimed to address the mentioned health effects which arise due to constant exposure to PM air pollution. The basic changes concerned three major criteria, particularly monitoring air quality, defining a new air quality index, and preventing deterioration (“2012 NAAQS for Particulate Matter,” 2017). The first proposed change concerns air quality monitoring. In this section, the organization updates several aspects of regulating particle pollution. These particles are joined with other pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), to ensure that these monitors are at one location in each area with a population of more than a million. Moreover, this regulation will differ for densely populated areas (more than 2 million) by January 2015 (Esworthy, 2013). The updates are also based on the existing data from the Chemical Speciation Network, which is used to evaluate whether the area meets the projected visibility index appropriate for PM 2.5. However, no changes were introduced to PM10 monitoring.

Another major change concerns the air quality index (AQI). This regulation was updated to provide more information to the public about air quality and associated measures for reducing risks of exposure to PM pollution (“Air Pollution,” 2017). Thus, for PM 2.5 the upper range for the “Good” air quality on the overall scale was raised. Moreover, the EPA suggested applying 100 values for the “Moderate” air pollution category on the index scale and 150 for “Unhealthy Sensitive Groups.” High-risk groups remained the same: “Hazardous” for 500, “Unhealthy” for 200, and “Very Unhealthy” for 300 (Esworthy, 2013). Other EPA efforts to control air quality include revised regulations concerning the prevention of its significant deterioration. It means that the organization revised the permitting program rules concerning the revised NAAQS (Esworthy, 2013).

Benefits and cost of the revised PM NAAQS.To support the need of the existing PM NAAQS, the EPA calculated the benefits that the country will have after the implementation of new rules. Thus, according to the organization, the reduction in premature deaths will account for 90% of total benefits (Esworthy, 2013). Other societal and environmental benefits are hard to predict as they cannot be quantitatively analyzed. However, the organization ensures that positive changes for human health will be drastic. The health and welfare effects will also stem from the reduction of the ambient concentration of PM 2.5 in the atmosphere. Moreover, it has been estimated by scholars that after the revision, the country’s financial benefits would range from $4.0 billion to $9.1 per year in 2020, comparing to the current annual costs ranging from $53 to $350 million (Esworthy, 2013). Nevertheless, many stakeholders argue that despite the anticipated benefits, the EPA underestimated potential costs which will later result in various monetary consequences to the state’s economic environment.

Criticism and endorsement of the revised PM NAAQS.Before the implementation of the PM NAAQS, the organization received numerous comments for and against more stringent regulations. Business and industry opposed the suggested standards, particularly due to a potentially negative effect on the global economic environment. However, public health agencies and environmentalists advocated stricter standards due to positive health effects that will be obtained due to new regulations, according to the current scientific studies. The main critics of PM NAAQS argued that more stringent standards are not justified by science. In addition, critics required an identical level of strictness for all the mentioned fine particles without distinguishing more and less hazardous ones. The final and the most serious concern expressed that foreseeable benefits and costs that were associated with the implementation of the previous version of PM NAAQS have not yet been realized.

In contrast, advocates of stricter criteria stressed that PM 2.5 standards should be even more stringent as daily and yearly levels recommended in the 2006 EPA paper (Esworthy, 2013). They also argued that more severe rules could ensure continued progress toward the protection of public health, which was required by the CAA. Finally, the supporters of revised stricter standards claimed that such improvements as enhanced visibility and improved public health validate the cost spent on their implementation.

Conclusion

Particulate matter is one of six main pollutants defined by the EPA as hazardous. The other pollutants are sulfur and nitrogen oxides, smog, or carbon monoxide. PM 2.5 is mostly emitted from cars, smokestacks, or fires. However, they can appear in the atmosphere from gaseous forerunners. In general, PM consists of a minuscular solid of liquid droplets which cause serious health issues when inhaled. Experts agree on the point that fine particles (PM2.5) are the main cause of reduced visibility, heart strokes, asthmas, and even premature deaths. Therefore, the NAAQS under the CAA created standards and rules to reduce particulate matter pollution and avoid deterioration of human health.

The main purpose of the EPA is to reduce the emission of PM and improve air quality. With the help of state and local governments, the EPA regulates the number of inhalable particles which are smaller than 10 micrometers in the air. In 2012, based on the agency’s review of the air quality criteria and NAAQS for PM, the EPA decided to revise PM standards. The revision was triggered by the advancement of science. Therefore, the agency made related revisions in data handling conventions, the ambient air monitoring, improved the air quality index, and changed regulations for the deterioration program.

However, the revised standards encountered criticism in terms of their cost-effectiveness and reliability. The proponents and critics presented several arguments to defend their position on the revised 2013 PM NAAQS. Nevertheless, even if foreseeable benefits and costs associated with the implementation of 2013 PM NAAQS will not be realized, humanity will benefit from revising the rules and imposing more stringent control over PM pollution.

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