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Column: Our Health Depends on the Air We Breathe

For too many Americans and Virginians, simply breathing the air can be dangerous. That’s especially the case for the 306,000 Virginia children and 96,000 adults who battle asthma, the 1.1 million with cardiovascular disease, the 154,000 with chronic bronchitis and the estimated 411,000 who live in poverty. But it is true for all of us and it’s that way because of soot in our air.

Soot, or fine particulate matter (PM2.5), is composed of a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets, usually made up of several different types of harmful chemicals. It’s easy to recognize as it contributes significantly to the haze that blankets many cities and national parks. Smokestacks and tailpipes churn out soot and we breathe it in, every day.

The body reacts to it in much the same manner as it does to tobacco smoke. Smaller than a grain of sand and only visible with a microscope, tiny soot particles travel deep into the lungs when inhaled and swiftly penetrate the bloodstream, immediately increasing the risk of severe respiratory distress, heart attacks and strokes.

Soot kills; leads to hospitalizations; triggers asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes; and has been linked to causing permanent lung tissue and airway damage, reproductive complications and cancer.

For decades, the Clean Air Act has helped protect the air we breathe by letting us know and track what pollutants make it into our air and allowing us to set targets, make plans, and have accountability for reducing those pollutants over time. And perhaps most importantly, it requires that we review those standards as science helps us understand new risks.

That’s happening now with soot. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reviewing the current standard for soot, last set in 1997. Since then, more than 10,000 studies have demonstrated that soot is a public health threat and that we must ensure that fewer smaller particles are able to get into the air and into our lungs.

Earlier this summer, the EPA proposed a new stronger standard for soot and is accepting public comments on these standards until the end of August. What are the potential benefits of enacting the strongest standard? By cleaning up soot, we can prevent 35,700 deaths, 23,290 visits to the hospital and emergency room, 2,350 heart attacks, 1.4 million cases of aggravated asthma and 29,800 cases of acute bronchitis every year. An estimated 2.7 million days of missed work and school due to air pollution-caused ailments would be avoided annually.

It’s August in Washington and the humidity makes it hard enough to breathe for even the most healthy among us. While we see the haze of air pollution on really bad days, we do not see the particles within it. And those particles are a threat to our health and the health of our families and neighbors. I hope all Virginians and Americans will join me in asking the EPA to stand strong for a strong soot standard. We’ll all breathe a bit easier when you do.