Currently, 70 million Americans live in areas that are in violation of the health standards set by EPA. That's 70 million people routinely exposed to fine particles at levels that the EPA deems unsafe.
What are the resulting health effects?
According to the EPA, PM 2.5 causes irritation of the airways, coughing, and difficulty breathing, decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis, irregular heartbeat, nonfatal heart attacks, and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.
Now we can add lung cancer to that terrible list of environmental effects of air pollution.
A study published last month in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine examined the relationship between long-term fine particle pollution and deaths from lung cancer in 188,000 Americans.
The researchers, led by Michelle Turner of the University of Ottawa, followed their study subjects for 26 years, from 1982 to 2008. They found that PM 2.5 exposure, as measured by air monitoring systems, was significantly correlated with deaths from lung cancer. Turner and her colleagues are fairly certain that these lung cancers were not caused by cigarette smoking, a potent carcinogen and a common confounder in cancer studies, because they studied only those people who had never smoked.
EPA said this week that it needed more time to finish drafting new standards for fine particles from power plants. The agency is required by the Clean Air Act to set science-based standards every five years. It missed its October 2011 deadline and indicated in a court filing last week that the new standards would not be finalized until June, 2013. It's a disappointing delay.
Here's what you can do to help reduce your family's exposure to fine particle pollution:
Know your air. Find out whether the air you breathe is persistently polluted with fine particles here. Also, you can find out what is the quality of the air you are breathing right now at AirNow, a government website that provides real time air quality mapping.
Avoid exercising outdoors in air that is high in fine particle pollution. Don't let your kids exercise outside on such days either. Vigorous exercise brings more of the fine particles deep into the lungs.
Use less electricity. Power plants are one of the largest pollution sources in the US.
Drive less. Cars increase air pollution, including fine particle pollution.
Don't burn wood or trash. Such fires are a large source of fine particle pollution.
Clean up your school system's school buses. Old diesel buses can be a significant source of particle pollution. Make sure your school system is retrofitting old buses and has a strong anti-idling policy.