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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Particulate Matter (PM) Pollution: Protecting those Most Vulnerable

By Laura Anderko, RN PhD

In response to: Particulate Matter: Widespread and Deadly

Under the Clean Air Act, ambient air standards are required to be set at a level sufficient to protect the health of “sensitive groups.” Currently, standards for ambient air quality fail in protecting the health of those most vulnerable, including minority and low socioeconomic groups.

The Clean Air Act was signed on December 31, 1970 to foster economic growth while improving human health and the environment ( Despite considerable progress in improving air quality since the Clean Air Act was signed into law, air pollution remains a threat to public health. Nearly six million people in the United States live in an area with unhealthy levels of PM pollution (

A recent study found that stronger limits on PM pollution could prevent nearly 36,000 premature deaths nationwide every year.  In addition, stronger PM limits would prevent more than 23,000 trips annually to the hospital and 1.4 million cases of aggravated asthma, resulting in savings of $281 billion every year from reduced costs associated with premature death and disease.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a comprehensive review of the current research on PM pollution in December 2009 concluding that both short-term and long-term exposure to PM pollution caused serious threats to health including: heart and lung disease, stroke, cancer, reproductive health issues, developmental delays, and premature death (1).

Vulnerable populations, including low-income urban communities, are at increased risk of morbidity and mortality associated with increased exposures to PM pollution. A large concentration of minority and low-socioeconomic populations reside in urban communities that experience high levels of urban air pollution. Adding to this vulnerability are individual risks such as increased sensitivity to air pollution, prevalence of chronic disease, and exposures to other environmental factors such as indoor air pollution. We know that minority and low-socioeconomic populations consistently have high rates of chronic disease that can increase negative health impacts from poor air quality (2).

Critical to the setting of ambient air quality standards that are health-protective is establishing a better understanding of how lower socioeconomic status increases one’s susceptibility to disease from air pollution. Future research must explore the complex causal pathways that increase the health risks of minority and low socioeconomic populations as it relates to air quality (2).

In 1994, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations (PDF) to address environmental justice, with a focus on disparities in environmental exposures and potential public health consequences. In recognition of the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice, Plan EJ 2014 was established.

EJ 2014 is designed as a strategy to improve the integration of environmental justice into the Agency’s programs, policies, and activities and to advance environmental justice across the EPA and the federal government. In an effort to protect groups from disproportionate exposures and health effects, cross-agency focus areas include integrating environmental justice in rulemaking, permitting, compliance and enforcement among other initiatives. The goals of the plan include a) protecting health in communities overburdened by pollution, b) empowering communities to take action to improve environment and health, and c) establishing partnerships with local, state, tribal, and federal organizations to achieve healthy and sustainable communities.

Plan EJ 2013 includes a Science Implementation Plan that is aimed at finding solutions to environmental and health inequalities among low income and minority populations in the US. To reach this goal, the EPA established a Research Workgroup under the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (NEJAC) in March 2012 to advise the EPA Administrator and the Office of Research and Development (ORD) in the area of scientific research, particularly as it applies to disproportionate exposures and health impacts . This focus on the complex causal pathways leading to disproportionate exposures and negative health impacts in overburdened communities may lead to the policy initiatives that address environmental justice issues, leading to the creation of policy that is truly focused on “health for all.”

Many health and environmental groups support setting the annual standard for PM2.5 at 11 micrograms per cubic meter, which is estimated to save up to 27,300 lives per year. It is time for the EPA to put public health first by setting stronger limits on PM pollution and leveraging the voice of health professionals. Additionally, Clean Air Act implementation must protect the millions of Americans who live near highways, especially those most vulnerable, especially minority and low socioeconomic communities, from negative health impacts related to transportation and poor air quality.


1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter, December 2009. EPA 600/R-08/139F.

2. Samet, JM White, GD. J Epidemiol Community Health 2004;58:3-5 doi:10.1136/jech.58.1.3.


Elizabeth O'Nan said ..

Please consider the unnecessary small particle contamination emitted by prescribed burns on US Forest Service and state forest lands.

November 10, 2014

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