WASHINGTON – Roughly one-third of all Americans live in areas with dangerous levels of soot pollution in the air, Environmental Protection Agency officials said Friday.
EPA administrator Mike Leavitt said Friday’s designations, which will require 20 states and the District of Columbia to devise strategies within three years to reduce the level of tiny air particles linked to respiratory illness and premature death, show the administration is making progress in protecting public health.
“This is not a story about the air getting dirtier, this is a story about higher and more stringent standards and healthier air,” Leavitt said. He added that as of 2003, the average concentration of fine particles in the air nationwide had declined 10 percent since 1999, when the EPA began monitoring it.
Friday’s listings identify which communities meet national air quality standards, established in 1997 under legal pressure from environmentalists, for particles that are about one-thirtieth the width of an average hair. This pollution, mainly soot from power plants, automobiles, forest fires and heavy-duty diesel engines, can penetrate the lungs and exacerbate respiratory and heart disease.
No counties in Washington or Idaho were on the list. Lincoln County in Montana was listed.
EPA officials estimate that if most of the 224 targeted counties and the District can meet the new standard by 2010, it will prevent at least 15,000 premature deaths, 75,000 cases of chronic bronchitis and 3.1 million days of missed work.
John Bachmann, associate director for science and policy for the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, called fine particles “the most important pollution we have,” adding the benefits of reducing it outweigh the costs by a ratio of 20 to 1.