The holiday season gives us plenty of reasons to brave the cold and head outside, whether it’s walking through downtown to see the decorations or playing in the snow when it finally falls. It’s hard to imagine a winter without being able to enjoy these activities. But for people with lung disease, soot pollution in the air may keep them from taking part in the traditions we all love.
Soot, also called particle pollution, can fill our air and threaten our health all year round. These particles come mainly from vehicles and coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources, and they’re so small that once they’re inhaled, they can become lodged deep in the lungs.
Once within the lungs, these soot particles can cause asthma attacks; increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes; damage lung tissue and airways; increase hospital visits for those with respiratory and cardiovascular problems; and even cause death. And while anyone can suffer from the dangerous impacts of soot pollution, children and the elderly are especially vulnerable. The University of Virginia allergy clinic in Culpeper commonly consists of patients, some of whom are likely your neighbors, with lung diseases exacerbated by particle pollution.
Virginia already has locations where the levels of soot in the air violate the existing standards. Ten cities and counties had at least one orange alert day, when the levels of particle pollution in the air made it unsafe for children, seniors, and people with lung and heart disease to breathe.
The Washington, DC metropolitan area ranked 22 out of 277 metro areas for its high number of soot alert days. Culpeper may be fortunate enough not to have DC’s traffic, but DC’s air pollution doesn’t stop at city or county lines. Plus, soot blows in from the smokestacks of the many coal-fired power plants in Virginia.
Worse, these air alert days do not adequately warn the public. Our current national limit on particle pollution hasn’t been updated in almost 15 years, and there is now overwhelming scientific evidence that it’s not strong enough to protect our health; studies show that effects of fine particles occur at levels well below the current standards.
The good news is, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to strengthen the standards earlier this year, and they’re due to issue a final ruling by December 14. The limits they proposed are a step forward, but they don’t go far enough to fully protect us. The American Lung Association, along with a broad coalition of other health groups and medical professionals from across the country, is calling for an even stronger limit that would save approximately 35,700 lives each year.
Because soot pollution is such a dangerous problem, it needs to be addressed as a health safety concern, rather than a political issue. President Obama and the EPA must set the strongest possible limits on particle pollution. It’s a national standard with a big local impact.
Joshua Kennedy, MD, is a clinical instructor of allergy and immunology with the University of Virginia. Laura Kate Bender is the Virginia Healthy Air Campaign coalition coordinator for the American Lung Association.