Why We Need Stronger PM2.5 Standards, Especially Because of COVID-19

Why We Need Stronger PM2.5 Standards, Especially Because of COVID-19

Why We Need Stronger PM2.5 Standards, Especially Because of COVID-19

By: Sidni Smith (Summer 2020 Legal Intern and Summer 2020 MPH Intern)

Living means breathing. Gasp takes action to ensure that all Alabamians are accessing clean, healthy air to breathe that will result in better health outcomes and increased quality of life. On an annual basis, Gasp comments on the Ambient Air Monitoring Network Plans provided by JCDH and ADEM regarding any intended changes for the upcoming year. After the public comment period, EPA must approve the final Plans.

For 2020 in particular, COVID-19 has posed a greater threat to communities already in crisis—communities plagued by toxic air and predisposed to health conditions as a result of environmental issues, geographical bounds, socioeconomic disparities, and genetics. According to the CDC, “the most at-risk groups for severe illness from COVID-19 are people 65 years and older, people who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility, and people of all ages with underlying medical conditions… [such as] people with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma… people who are immunocompromised, people with severe obesity… [and] people with diabetes…” Simply put, communities trapped in toxic pits are also one of the most at-risk groups.

The greatest issue thriving at the intersection of legacy pollution and the current pandemic is that communities already dying, are dying at increased rates. Articles have pointed to the parallel between increased rates of death due to COVID-19 and the disparate impact on African-American communities. An ongoing Harvard study also shows a correlation between PM2.5 exposure and higher COVID-19 death rates. This same study revealed that “an increase of only 1 μg/m3 in long-term average PM2.5 is associated with a statistically significant 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.” Unfortunately, if a person dies, there is no certainty as to the cause of death due either to the pandemic or the pollution. Perhaps, it’s safe to say both, so stricter regulations on PM2.5 are of greater necessity during this time.

As a solution to current circumstances and in hopes of effectuating a lasting regulatory change, it is imperative to strengthen the PM2.5 standard. Why? PM 2.5 poses the greatest risk to health. PM2.5 are fine particles only viewable at microscopic level that are linked to severe respiratory illnesses and many other health issues. EPA has proposed and maintained the current annual standard level of 12.0 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) for PM2.5. In the EPA’s January 2020 Review for PM standards, the data that accounted for alternative standards revealed “…long-term PM2.5 exposures are estimated to be associated with as many as 45,000 total deaths and 14,600 IHD [ischemic heart disease] deaths annually… [and] [t]he majority of this estimated risk is associated with annual average PM2.5 concentrations from 10 to 12 μg/m3 (Figure 3-12).” The data also captured that “air quality adjusted to meet alternative annual standards with lower levels is associated with reductions in estimated IHD mortality risk across the 30 study areas (i.e., 7 to 9% reduction for a level of 11.0 μg/m3; 14 to 18% reduction for a level of 10.0 μg/m3; 21 to 27% reduction for a level of 9.0 μg/m3) (Table 3-8 and Figure 3-12).”

So, let’s break this down and recap. The Harvard study mentioned earlier in this article showed that for every 1 μg/m3 PM2.5 increase there is also an 8% increase in COVID-19 deaths. The EPA’s Review showed that a reduction to a level of 9 μg/m3 for PM2.5 would yield a 21 to 27% death reduction. For easy math, let’s average “21 to 27%” to 24% (21+27=48, and 48/2 =24). The data is consistent:

If there is an associated 8% increase in COVID-19 deaths for every 1 μg/m3 increase in PM2.5, is there an 8% decrease in COVID-19 deaths for every 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5?

Let’s predict so.

The current PM2.5 standard level is 12 μg/m3.

If we reduce the current 12 μg/m3 standard to 9 μg/m3, that is a reduction of 3 μg/m3.

3 μg/m3 times 8% decrease in COVID-19 deaths is 24%.

By reducing the standard level of PM2.5 to 9 μg/m3, I propose a 24% reduction in COVID-19 deaths.

Don’t forget that the EPA’s Review also revealed that a reduction to a level of 9 μg/m3 would lead to an average of a 24% death reduction.

 In conclusion, it is clear that EPA must reduce the current standard level of 12 μg/m3 to 9 μg/m3, not only due to the current COVID-19 circumstances, but because it is the right thing to do for the health of the public.



JCDH Releases 2020 Ambient Air Monitoring Plan for Public Comment

JCDH Releases 2020 Ambient Air Monitoring Plan for Public Comment

JCDH Releases 2020 Ambient Air Monitoring Plan for Public Comment

It’s that time of year again: the Jefferson County Department of Health has posted for public comment its 2020 Ambient Air Monitoring Plan. Comments are due June 17th at 4:30 PM.

Like we have done for the past several years, Gasp will comment on the Ambient Air Monitoring Plans put out by ADEM (still waiting on ADEM’s to be posted, but we will alert you once it is) and JCDH. These plans contain any changes that either ADEM or JCDH plan to make to their ambient air monitoring network in that year. The plans are subject to public comment and EPA must approve the Plans.

I’ll remind you again that where ambient air monitors are placed and for what pollutant they monitor is crucial to the regulators’ and public’s ability to understand their air quality. For example, when Birmingham has “ozone days,” this information is being collected from the various ozone monitors throughout JCDH’s ambient air monitoring network. Gasp has been commenting on these plans the past several years not only because of the crucial role ambient air monitors play in informing us about air quality, but also because a more robust, intentionally strategic ambient air monitoring network is a critical component of establishing everyone’s right to breathe healthy air.

As usual, we will push for more monitoring and argue against the closure of existing monitors in our comments. We remain especially concerned about pollution in overburdened areas, especially given that small particle pollution has been found to be associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate. Monitoring can and does lead to emissions reductions. This is why Gasp fights for a robust monitoring network (and performs community science alongside community members and leaders). Especially during an unprecedented global pandemic, where the risk for death is higher when exposed to more pollution, the fight for environmental justice requires more, not less, air monitoring.

EPA Rolls Back Standards for Mercury Pollution from Coal- and Oil-Fired Power Plants

EPA Rolls Back Standards for Mercury Pollution from Coal- and Oil-Fired Power Plants

EPA Rolls Back Standards for Mercury Pollution from Coal- and Oil-Fired Power Plants

On April 16, 2020, in keeping with its deregulatory agenda, EPA finalized the supplemental cost finding and Risk and Technology review for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which were finalized in 2012. Put simply, while EPA is downplaying the significance of weakening MATS, there are several ways in which this is incredibly concerning for our health and environment.

First, just a refresher on MATS: the rule was finalized in 2012, and the EPA under the Obama administration found that it was “appropriate and necessary” (also called the “A&N finding”) to tally benefits of reducing mercury pollution and co-benefits of reducing sulfur dioxide, fine particulate matter and other pollutants. The analysis also included benefits to health in dollar amounts. For example, driving down mercury emissions alone would yield a $6 million dollar annual benefit. This was increased to an $80 billon benefit over five years when factoring in gains in avoided heart disease, asthma attacks and other health problems.

Then EPA lost a legal challenge on MATS in 2015, when in Michigan v. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court found that EPA was also required to consider costs when determining whether it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), also known as air toxics, from power plants. If you’re interested in reading more about the court challenges to MATS in the past, you can read older blog posts here.

It’s worth noting that the now-bankrupt Murray Energy CEO, Robert Murray, who is also a major fundraiser for President Trump, personally requested that MATS be rolled back in a “wish list” submitted to top Trump officials shortly after Trump took office. So, amid a pandemic, Trump’s EPA decided to deliver on this request.

EPA says all their rollback amounts to is “correcting the previous Administration’s flawed cost finding in the original rule.” They then go on to downplay mercury emissions for the U.S., while at the same time stating that EPA has determined it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate HAP emissions from power plants under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act. Under the Residual Risk and Technology Review, EPA found that HAP emissions have been reduced such that residual risk is at acceptable levels, and made no changes to MATS.

What does all of this actually amount to? First, co-benefits are no longer calculated with the abandonment of the A&N finding. Where power plants have already complied with MATS, some might shrug their shoulders. However, as is often the case in this Administration, if you look only at the smoke and show, and not behind the curtain, you might miss the real problem. The real issue here is that by abandoning the “appropriate and necessary” finding for MATS, the door has been open for the fossil fuel industry to justify no or very weak regulations for any pollutant because it is “too costly.”

Finally, since MATS became final, it drastically reduced mercury and other air toxics, which are linked to respiratory issues, heart disease and cancer. MATS is credited with saving as many as 11,000 lives a year. During a health crisis (a PANDEMIC), especially where heart disease and respiratory issues are co-morbidities for COVID-19, and exposure to air pollution also increases risk of death from COVID-19, it is unconscionable that EPA would weaken MATS and abandon the A&N finding.

COVID-19: Air pollution reductions?

COVID-19: Air pollution reductions?

COVID-19: Air pollution reductions?

I think many of us are looking for a silver lining right now; many are looking for a calm amidst the storm (side note, this video from a doctor working with only COVID-19 patients in New York City is the best thing I have seen since this started. It’s logical, measured and hopeful. I encourage everyone to watch).

This might be why almost every friend or family member has sent to me articles about how air pollution has been reduced worldwide. I, of course, reply that this is a good thing. This is certainly a silver lining. However, I also use this opportunity to remind that a lot of the reduction is for mobile sources of air pollution. That’s not to say the reduction is insignificant, but I knew it was an important distinction to make.

Because I knew this was coming. Yesterday EPA announced the “Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic.” This policy allows power plants, factories and other facilities to determine for themselves if they are able to meet legal requirements on reporting air and water pollution. The Policy asks companies to “act responsibly” if they cannot currently comply with rules that require them to monitor or report the release of hazardous air pollution. Businesses, it said, should “minimize the effects and duration of any noncompliance” and keep records to report to the agency how Covid-19 restrictions prevented them from meeting pollution rules.

Almost as concerning as the Policy itself is the fact that its duration is indefinite, and merely refers to “after this policy is no longer in effect, EPA expects full compliance.” The million dollar question for everyone these days is “when can my life go back to normal?” I have seen anything from President Trump saying by Easter to epidemiologists and doctors cautioning this “new normal” might have to last until we have a vaccine, which is at least a year from now. So all we know is that EPA could be allowing power plants, refineries and other polluters to “act responsibly” until Easter, or have a field day for a year or more.

Not only will EPA not take civil enforcement actions during this undefined time, but polluting industries can also skip out on monitoring. Without sufficient monitoring and recordkeeping, citizens and groups like Gasp are hamstrung in their ability to hold agencies and industry accountable.

EPA even goes so far as to defer to the states on enforcement. This is especially concerning in a place like Jefferson County, AL. Our regulatory agency for air is the Jefferson County Department of Health. Given the COVID-19 has community spread here, and we have the highest confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, I’d say our Department of Health is pretty busy. So if EPA is punting their right to act to JCDH, who is already overwhelmed, I would imagine polluting industries in Jefferson County could have a real field day.

So, to all my friends and family who sent me those articles, I’m still happy we are seeing less pollution from mobile sources. But what EPA did yesterday is what I knew was coming, and tarnishes that silver lining for me.

COVID-19 is a public health crisis. It should not be a field day for polluters. Now, more than ever, the work Gasp does is critical.

COVID-19: How I’m Keeping Myself Sane and Others Safe

COVID-19: How I’m Keeping Myself Sane and Others Safe

COVID-19: How I’m Keeping Myself Sane and Others Safe

I know we all have been hearing about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) for several months now. What once felt like a distant threat–a mere passing headline occasionally on the nightly news in places faraway–is now all of our reality. For me, life drastically changed almost two weeks ago. Throughout the week of March 9th, I began to feel the imminent threat of the virus more palpably. We officially began working from home on the 13th. My daughter’s last day of school was the same day, and I took what I knew would be my last in person yoga class that same evening. As I laid in savasana, I allowed myself to feel the fear, uncertainty and anger that I had been shoving down all week. I shed a tear for knowing I won’t be practicing in a place I love for some time, for my daughter who won’t be around her friends, for my life as the way I am used to living it. But most of all, I felt deeply for the people who will be forever touched by COVID-19. And part of what I felt is fear for myself and my family, and the hope that we will be spared.

Like everyone, the days since I began social distancing have been long: some bad, some good. Initially I struggled that the most I can do to help others is to stay away from them. I am doing this for my dad, who is extremely at risk. I am doing this for healthcare workers who are on the front lines; social distancing helps flatten the curve and gives them a chance. I am doing this for my friends who are pregnant, my friends who are essential workers and cannot stay home.

Because you should do something, and because it’s the best and right thing to do does not always make it easy. As I have said, I still have bad days. But I am offering to anyone the things that have helped me through the past two weeks, and am offering in the hopes they may help you too.

  1. I got off Facebook. I quickly realized all of the COVID-19 posts were sending me into a panic spiral. I’m not saying I didn’t know the threat without Facebook. But the barrage of information was anxiety inducing for me. I have felt demonstrably better since deleting Facebook a week ago. I have never used Twitter and don’t watch 24/7 news, but I would imagine those could have similar effects. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, I urge you to consider limiting the ways in which you let information about COVID-19 affect you.
  2. Going outside. I am lucky enough to have a big backyard, and a child who would rather never be indoors. Whether we are just sitting on our deck talking, digging through our compost pile for worms, drawing with chalk or going on a walk, being outdoors helps immensely with social distancing. I can’t wait to plant our vegetable garden soon.
  3. Running and a yoga home practice. I generally run about 10-15 miles a week, so by no means am I an avid runner, but it is something I do regularly. I typically run on a treadmill, but have moved all of my runs outdoors, weather permitting. My mood drastically improves, and good cardiac health is tied to long term health benefits. I have also begun a yoga home practice. I am ecstatic that the studio I practice at is now offering some online classes. Physical exercise has always been my best way to combat anxiety.
  4. Limit myself on the information I consume. Somewhat related to 1), I am being very intentional about the information I consume about COVID-19. I have signed up for this newsletter, which offers data and information. For me, reading data itself, without editorializing from the media or commentary from a friend posting on social media helps me be aware without feeling anxious or panicking. I also signed up for alerts through the City of Birmingham and monitoring the Jefferson County Department of Health’s website (sidenote: I have always done this everyday, checking for draft permits that may be posted. While JCDH and Dr. Wilson are doing a phenomenal job addressing COVID-19, I really miss checking the site only for air permits. Sigh). WBHM is also a great resource that I turn on in the morning, if I feel I need some information first thing.
  5. FaceTime and zoom. Whether it’s family, friends, my daughter’s friends, I am FaceTiming someone at least 3 times a day. Gasp staff and interns are regularly meeting via Zoom. While I really miss seeing and spending time with everyone (really intensely missing Sunday park playdates), this helps me feel connected.
  6. Supporting local businesses. The big guys like Amazon are going to reign supreme during this time. And we do need them right now. But we can’t forget our friends who own small businesses, especially locally. I have bought extra Zyrtec (kind of not cool how COVID-19 is intersecting with allergy season) at Crestwood Pharmacy. One of my dear friends owns Rib It Up, and they have a drive through! Villager Yoga is offering online classes and I bought this awesome shirt to support a good cause and to help advocate for social distancing.

I also want to assure you that all of us at Gasp are still working to fulfill our mission. Now, more than ever it is critical to educate the public on the health risks associated with poor air quality, and to address air pollution (because the last thing we need is COVID-19 and air pollution threatening our health). We are all in this together, and I hope some of what I share can help you through social distancing and this scary, uncertain and isolating time.


Haley Lewis

Haley Lewis

Staff Attorney

A native of Birmingham, Haley earned her B.A. from George Washington University, J.D. from Cumberland School of Law and a master’s in Public Administration from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Haley focused her studies at Cumberland on a career in public policy and expanded that focus by obtaining an MPA. Haley began working on statewide policy issues in 2013.

Haley is an active member of the Birmingham community. She is a member of the Junior League of Birmingham and the League of Women Voters. She’s also involved with the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform movement. Haley is an advocate for comprehensive, long-term policies that promote health and equality in Alabama.

Email: [email protected]
Phone: 205.701.4272