by Dr. Anne Mellinger-Birdsong, Georgia Recorder
I am a mother and a pediatrician who lives in Georgia. I specialize in air pollution, climate and environmental health and I can tell you, in no uncertain terms, that to improve our health and well-being, we need to clean up our air. I can also tell you that if we don’t, our children will be among those who suffer the most.
Fine particulate matter (PM2.5), widely known as soot, is a major kind of air pollution. Soot is a toxic, even lethal, air pollutant created by the exhaust fumes of cars, power plants, other industrial sources and wildfire smoke. It is so tiny, just 2.5 micrometers or smaller, that we often can’t see it (as a comparison, a typical human hair has a diameter of about 70 micrometers). Fine soot particles can easily enter the bloodstream when we breathe them in. Once the particles are in our body, they seriously harm our health and put children, seniors and people with chronic illnesses especially at risk.
This is why it’s a serious issue that five counties in Georgia received a “C” grade for having too many exceedances of the current soot standard, according to the American Lung Association 2022 State of the Air Report. These were Washington, Richmond, Houston, Dougherty, and Bibb counties. In addition, the metropolitan Augusta/Richmond county area was in the top 25 cities in the country for its annual soot level.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for how much of this dangerous pollution is allowed in the air, but the current soot standards do not reflect the overwhelming scientific evidence we have about how dangerous and deadly this pollution is for our health. And it is especially damaging for two of the most vulnerable groups in our state: children and seniors.
This is why it’s so important right now, as the EPA is updating the standards, that it make the standards strong enough to truly protect Georgia’s health. While the new proposal is a small step in the right direction, it does far too little to protect people’s health.
Strengthening the annual soot standard to 8 per cubic meter would prevent almost 20,000 deaths – quadruple the lives saved by the current EPA proposal. And because soot is not evenly distributed geographically, this failure to reduce the deadly impacts of soot is especially harmful for overburdened communities that already suffer unacceptable environmental injustices.
As any scientist or doctor who researches air pollution or cares for patients that breathe polluted air can tell you, there is no question that soot seriously damages people’s health. As a pediatrician, children are my focus, and from the littlest infants to those well into their teenage years, they are especially vulnerable. This is because their lungs and their whole bodies are still growing and developing. Breathing particulate matter not only causes asthma attacks, but increases children’s risk of developing asthma in the first place. It damages their lung growth so they end up with smaller, damaged lungs as adults. It also increases the risk of children getting serious viral illnesses like RSV, influenza or Covid-19. Soot pollution can lead to low birth weight, increased risk of preterm birth and higher rates of infant mortality. Once children are in school, air pollution can worsen academic performance, causing children to have lower test scores and more behavioral problems.
I also know that soot pollution has been linked to many other serious health conditions affecting older adults, too. These include pneumonia, heart attacks, heart disease and strokes as well as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other dementias. The EPA itself acknowledges that soot kills people. Scientists project tens of thousands of deaths from soot in the United States every year. In addition, particle air pollution affects mental health in both children and adults.
The problem of soot pollution is widespread – millions of Americans suffer the effects. According to the American Lung Association’s 2022 State of the Air Report, more than 63 million Americans experience unhealthy spikes in daily particle pollution. And more than 20 million Americans are exposed to dangerous levels of this pollution on a year-round basis.
Yet, no matter how widespread this problem is, the harms are not shared equally. Decades of systemic environmental racism means that unhealthy air of all types disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income populations. When it comes to soot exposure, communities of color routinely have the highest rates, and this comes with deadly consequences. Hispanic people are 25% more likely to die of particulate matter exposure than white people. Black people are 300% more likely to die than white people.
The good news about air pollution is that we see improvements within weeks of cleaning up the air. Fewer people have to go to the hospital or see their doctor because they’re sick. Stronger standards will not only allow millions of children and vulnerable people to breathe cleaner air, but to live longer, healthier lives. It will help reduce health disparities and is a start to undoing some of the environmental racism built into our country.
For the sake of all Georgians, I strongly urge EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan and President Joe Biden to do better. And I’m not alone. The EPA’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee recommended that the agency consider stronger soot standards than what it has proposed.
The EPA’s current proposal lets big polluters off the hook from protecting growing kids and does little to save the tens of thousands of lives lost each year to deadly soot pollution – although it easily could. Science tells us how to do this. All Americans and especially our children, no matter their race or socioeconomic status, deserve nothing less.
This story was written by Dr. Anne Mellinger-Birdsong, a pediatrician and contributor to the Georgia Recorder, where this story first appeared.
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