Air pollution, human health and PM-2.5 standards Essay

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Air pollution is a serious problem for everyone, particularly the presence of PM-2.5 in the air that people breathe everyday. The knowledge and understanding of humans about this particular air pollution aspect began “in 1971 with the coinage of the term “total suspended particulate (TSP) (Sattler, Lipscomb, 2002, p. 138).”

Today, PM-2.5 and PM-10 is known in many parts of the world, as well as the adverse health effects that this particular type of air pollution results to. Because of the need to regulate the presence of PM-2.5 in the air, there are different standards and levels enforced everywhere.

The United States, through its office the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have designated particular PM levels annually and in a 24 hour basis twice already, once in 1997, and after that in 2006 after studies prompted the agency to make some adjustments (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2009).

Other European countries, via the local government or through the direction of the umbrella organization European Union, are also imposing PM-2.5 levels via set standards, an effort duplicated by other countries like Canada (A.S. & L Associates, 2009).

The World Health Organization, one of the biggest and most influential organization focused on human health, has also contributed significant effort in the creation of PM-2.5 levels and standards globally, as well as raising more awareness and sponsoring studies that helped countries know PM-2.5 levels in their countries better, how to control and manage it and how to efficiently measure it (World Health Organization, 2009).

But today, there are criticisms about the existing PM-2.5 standards and the levels enforced in the different countries, saying that this is not enough. Because of this predicament, this paper will pursue exploring the proposition of a possible ideal PM-2.5 level and standard for countries to adhere to so that impact on human health is really effective.

At the same time, this paper will also explore the resulting impact of such change, particularly economic impact, since any change in the manner by which PM-2.5 levels are controlled will strongly impact the different aspects of modern human life wherein the use of machines and engines, petroleum and other economic-important features are found.

PM2.5 Levels in Countries and Among Organizations (WHO, Health Canada, US EPA)

In the United States, the EPA has already identified the 24 hour fine particulate standard at 35 micrograms per cubic meter for the PM-2.5. Annually, the US as a country should record an annual PM-2.5 level at 15 micrograms per cubic meter (Smith, 1999, p. 3402) or less, since this is the existing standard for the country.

The World Health Organization’s standards set on 2005 pegged the acceptable PM-2.5 levels at 10 micrograms per cubic meter. Canada only has standards for PM-2.5 in 24-hour periods, pegged at 30 micrograms per cubic meter (A.S. & L Associates, 2009).

Existing Standards: Is it enough?

Despite the presence of existing standards to control the level of PM-2.5 in the air, there are still extensive efforts from different agencies and specialists in the effort to know if the standards are working and if the standards are enough for the projected long term and short term goals involving the control and management of PM-2.5. One of the impasses in this particular case is expressed by an article about Canadian PM-2.5 situation.

The article noted how this particular case presents a case of “non-threshold toxins” wherein there are no levels safeguarded by standards that would in turn translate towards the creation of an air quality that is absolutely safe for humans (International Joint Commission, 2009).

As long as there is PM-2.5 pollution in the air, there is still the threat of health problems and health risks, as well as death caused by this problem. Still, efforts should be made even without the goal of achieving the ultimate, absolutely safe air, with the consideration towards creating at least a situation that puts human health in a better position compared to an environment with an uncontrolled PM-2.5 levels.

Studies that reflect positive results are not surprising at all because change was the goal for the creation of the standards. If there were changes then it is a positive aspect of the result but if there are results pointing to the inadequacies of the standards, then it should be seriously looked on because it means that what was set may not be enough (at least in comparison to the projected goals of the endeavor).

The US Supreme Court, for one, has been one of the significant entities that has come forward and questioned the adequacy of the standards set in the United States regarding the PM-2.5 levels. “The adequacy of such standards was, however, questioned by the US Supreme Court (Kondratyev, Varotsos, Krapivin, Ivlev, 2006, p. 76).”

Even inside EPA, there were those who are wondering why the change does not seem to look enough. Members of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) made it obvious to the EPA administrator that they are wondering why the PM-2.5 standards was not changed into something stricter during the 2006 revision (Environmental Protection Agency, 2009).

Perhaps, the group knows that stricter standards should be in place instead of the standards in use today, which, according to CASAC, was not enough to be “protective of human health (Christiansen, 2007).” These uncertainties are caused by the feeling that the management tools involved in the enforcement of the PM-2.5 standards are not up to par themselves.

And because of that, specialists cannot fully ascertain for sure if they have the correct data to make them believe that what they have right now is sufficient enough for human health and economic balance and stability (i.e. there were reported uncertainties surrounding the PM-2.5 emission estimates) (Office of the Inspector General, 2003, p. 9).

Proposed New Level

The effort to make the proposed new annual standard for PM-2.5 level in the country is based closely on the lowest existing annual PM-2.5 standard, and from that point on creating a considerable decrease in projected annual PM-2.5 concentration compared to previously existing standards and levels.

This is important because the lowest annual standard today indicates that it is already perceived doable and realistic for a country. Putting the new standard close to this particular standard lessens the risks that the new annual PM-2.5 standard level is not achievable and not realistic. If the previous lowest annual standard was enforced and the country/countries have made efforts to achieve this, a new, lower annual standard close to the previous standard can also be achieved.

Basis for Change

The basis for this proposed change towards enforcing the maintenance of lower PM-2.5 levels is hinged on the idea that if the society can have an air quality that is characterized by a PM-2.5 level that is lower than what is enforced presently, then it follows that health situations can improve and the negative impact made by the previous (and higher) PM-2.5 levels would be lessened.

Of course, even in the situation of hypothetical proposition, it is also important to put a PM-2.5 level/standards that is realistic and can be truly achieved and maintained. And because of that, it is impossible to peg the new proposed standard/level of PM-2.5 at 0 because that would mean complete and total eradication of many things that create PM-2.5 in the air, which is impossible, impractical and unrealistic.

A reasonable basis for the idea for a possible lower level is by looking at which country is negatively impacted the least by air pollution and PM-2.5. Another approach is by simply adopting the existing lowest PM-2.5 standard and creating a new standard lower than this.

The lowest has been the standard set by the World Health Organization at 10 micrograms per cubic meter, lower than the US EPA’s 15. Definitely, the basis for the new proposed level for PM-2.5 cannot be based on the Newfoundland case in Canada because at 25 micrograms per cubic meter, it is higher compared to the 15 per year in the US set by EPA in 2006.

The ideal proposed new standard per year should be at 8 micrograms per cubic meter. The five points separating US and WHO standards was not considered as indication that the lowest standard was difficult to achieve. Similarly, by putting a standard level lower by two points to that of WHO, the proposed new standard presents a better opportunity for health and air quality improvement while at the same time not drastic enough to merit serious negative economic impact.

Nonetheless, some might consider that this is a drastic shift, but this is not new. In the past, drastic change in projected levels were seen too, particularly in the case of the 24 hour particulate level – from as high as 65 down to just 35 micrograms.

While there are no empirical data available yet to support if trimming it down to 8 micrograms is the ideal level, trimming it to as low as 8 micrograms per cubic meter is supported by the logical rationale that everything will follow in decreasing manner if the PM-2.5 standard is set lower (Tamminen, 2006, p. 14).

“Evidence shows the benefits of decreasing particulate matter in the air: illnesses and death rates drop (Tamminen, 2006, p. 14).” This is not to mention that there are available literary sources supporting the idea that even with the existing 15 microgram standard there are still problems like inadequacy. What should be stressed is that lowering the standard is not a quick fix so that there will be a quick turnaround in the air quality and other related situations.

For one, there are always new and previously undetected factors as well as seasonal factors (i.e. forest fires) that can influence the strength in impact that the presence of PM-2.5 makes.

For example, it is important to know in particular which days register higher PM-2.5 levels compared to the other days and why such was the phenomenon, which was described as “PM-2.5 seasonality” (California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board, 2009), something that was also mentioned in the assessment of Canadian PM-2.5 standards as “episodic” (International Joint Commission, 2009).

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