What is particulate matter?
Tiny particles — each about 1/30th the width of a human hair — come from power plants, industrial operations, cars and trucks, diesel engines and fires.
These airborne particles, also known as soot, particulate matter or PM 2.5, can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, triggering serious health conditions, including reduced lung development in children, higher rates of asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, cancer and early death.
Early research indicates that exposure to particle pollution also increases the risk of death from the novel coronavirus.
How does particulate matter affect the Houston region?
In Texas, soot has received less attention than ground-level ozone, or smog, the state’s most visible problem with air pollution. That is partly because of insufficient monitoring for particulate matter. Houston and other areas with heavy traffic or industrial facilities may be especially inundated.
A new analysis by the Harvard School of Public Health and Environmental Defense Fund reveals that widespread exposure to particle pollution in the Houston area in 2015 alone contributed to more than 5,000 premature deaths and nearly $50 billion in economic damages.
The analysis also finds that 75 percent of the deaths in Houston happened in areas with levels of particle pollution below the Environmental Protection Agency’s current federal standard, which limits it to 12 micrograms per cubic meter.
Communities of color and low wealth tend to be exposed to greater air pollution, including soot, because they tend to live closer to industry and highways. With particle pollution, though, neighborhoods miles from the heavily industrial Ship Channel in west and southwest Houston experience high levels, too. Particulate matter knows no boundaries.
What can we do about it?
Federal law requires the EPA every five years to review the latest science and update the standard to protect public health. The EPA’s own scientists found that the current standard contributes to at least 45,000 deaths annually. Tightening it to 9 micrograms per cubic meter from 12 could save more than 10,000 American leaves each year, they concluded.
The agency, however, has ignored that advice and proposed to keep the outdated and inadequate standard.
“The latest science shows clearly that we need stronger, more protective limits on particle pollution,” said Rachel Fullmer, senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund. “EPA’s own analysis shows we risk tens of thousands of early deaths from that dangerous air pollution, and we know that particulate matter causes heart and lung diseases that make people more vulnerable to severe COVID-19.”
One Breath Partnership is fighting for a stronger standard, which would help bring clean air, every day to everyone. Nearly all of Houston lives with levels of particle pollution above 10 micrograms per cubic meter — and many areas are above the current standard of 12. Neighborhoods with the highest levels lack monitors. There are ample tools available to reduce this pollution and meet more protective health standards.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, is proposing to operate a new monitor for particulate matter in west Houston. We need to make sure the agency follows through on this commitment — which is just a first step. You can comment on TCEQ’s Annual Monitoring Network Plan through May 14 at 5 p.m.
We also must continue to contact our elected officials about our concerns and push for additional monitors in areas that have the highest pollution levels and impacts.
If a small increase in particulate matter damages people’s health, then any action we take to reduce it — even a modest one — is the right one for our shared home.
Tresaugue is senior communications manager for the Environmental Defense Fund.
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