Trump Administration Decision on Soot Standard Exposes Americans to Dangerous Air Pollution

December 7, 2020
Sharyn Stein, 202-905-5718,

(Washington, D.C. – December 7, 2020) Today, during its final weeks in office, the Trump administration finalized a decision to leave an inadequate standard for particle pollution in place – a step that will deliberately leave Americans vulnerable to the dangers of unhealthy air pollution.

“Particle pollution is linked to asthma attacks, bronchitis, heart disease and premature death. The Trump administration has a clear legal obligation to protect Americans from this dangerous pollution, but instead – and against all the best scientific data – has rushed through this effort to freeze the particle pollution standards at a level fails to protect public health,” said EDF senior attorney Rachel Fullmer. “EPA’s record also shows that communities in close proximity to industrial sources are disproportionately bearing the burden of this pollution, including Black, Latino, Indigenous and other communities of color. This action comes at the same time these communities are also disproportionately suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. The incoming Biden-Harris administration should immediately reverse this harmful decision.”


Particle pollution, commonly called soot, is a health hazard that is closely linked to a variety of heart and lung diseases, including the kinds of underlying conditions that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19. In fact, a study published this fall found that higher historical PM2.5 exposures were associated with higher county-level COVID-19 mortality rates.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA must review the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter every five years. The administration was due to update our national standards – but instead chose to freeze them at their current level. That decision came after they rushed the review process, shortening public comment periods and canceling scheduled meetings with experts and stakeholders.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA has a clear legal obligation to set a level for particulate pollution that protects public health with an adequate margin of safety. This margin of safety is intent to protect populations that are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. EPA experts considered the latest health science studies, and recognized that our current annual threshold for soot – 12 micrograms per cubic meter, set in 2012 – needs strengthening to protect public health and prevent thousands of premature deaths.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler disbanded the 26-member particulate matter expert panel. A smaller, divided advisory panel made up mostly of Wheeler’s appointees then rejected the expert advice and recommended leaving the soot standards at their current levels.

By finalizing this decision, EPA fails to uphold is obligation to protect all Americans, including the most vulnerable, and consider environmental justice implications:

  • EPA has recognized that even if air quality around the country just met the current standard, about 50,000 Americans would still suffer early deaths due to particulate pollution.
  • New studies of tens of millions of people, including a large 2017 study of the Medicare population, shows people are at risk from soot at exposure levels that are below our current standard.There are ample, common sense tools available to reduce particulate pollution and meet more protective health standards.· A 2018 study by EPA scientists published in AJPH found that “Non-White populations overall experienced 1.28 times the burden of the general population, and Black populations, specifically, experienced the greatest degree of disparity in the siting of PM emitting facilities at national, state, and county levels, burdened with 1.54 times the PM emissions faced by the general population.”
  • EPA review documents note that there is “strong evidence for racial and ethnic differences in PM2.5 exposures and in PM2.5-related health risk. Such analyses indicate that minority populations such as Hispanic and non-Hispanic black populations have higher PM2.5 exposures than non-Hispanic white populations, thus contributing to adverse health risk in non-white populations (U.S. EPA, 2019, section 12.5.4).”
  • However, in the proposed rulemaking, EPA writes that “this action does not have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority, low-income populations and/or indigenous peoples…” (FR announcement)

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