December 13, 2012

The Associated Press

Geese fly past the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant as the sun sets near Emmett, Kan.

Our View: EPA should set strict limits for soot pollution

While greenhouse gas emissions and climate change get most of the airtime when environmental issues are discussed, they are far from the only threat.

A court order requires the Obama administration to report standards for levels of particle pollution safe for people to breathe. The report could be issued as soon as Friday.

Vulnerable populations, including 115,000 people in Maine with asthma, stand to be negatively effected if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not follow the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community and impose much stricter standards than exist now.

Particle pollution, commonly known as soot, comes out of smokestacks and chimneys and is invisibly carried through the air. Tiny particles lodge in people's lungs and cause serious health problems.

The standards have not been updated in nearly 15 years, and in that time new scientific evidence has emerged to show that the particles lead to more serious consequences than previously understood. Not only does it contribute to lung ailments like asthma, but also contributes to heart attacks and strokes.

The good news is that previous efforts to limit particle pollution have had good results. A Harvard School of Public Health Study established a link between reductions in fine particulate matter and improved life expectancy in the United States between 2000 and 2007.

According to the American Lung Association, adopting the higher standards could save 37,000 lives a year.

Opposition to setting these standards predictably comes from the biggest industrial polluters. Having to meet tougher emission standards could cost them a little more, but they currently are benefiting from an outdated standard that disadvantages Maine people and businesses.

At the end of the tailpipe, Mainers breathe soot produced in coal-fired power plants in the Great Lakes region, even though we don't burn coal for power here. That means we end up with the health consequences of cheap power, while our industries have to pay more for their electricity than their competitors in other states.

The Obama administration has shown courage by toughening vehicle economy standards to battle carbon pollution. It should do so again when setting the safe levels for soot.

It's important that the EPA look at the evidence and set the right standards to limit soot.

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