LISTEN: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has updated its standard for how much particle pollution or soot is permissible in the air. The change is expected to benefit the health of people in Georgia. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge has more.


In this Nov. 14, 2016, file photo, a haze hovers over the Atlanta midtown skyline from a wildfire burning in the Northwest part of the state.

In this Nov. 14, 2016, file photo, a haze hovers over the Atlanta midtown skyline from a wildfire burning in the Northwest part of the state. Now, in 2024, Atlanta's Fulton County is again among those with air quality below new federal standards.

Credit: (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

The Biden administration Feb. 7 finalized a significantly stronger air quality standard that they say will better protect America’s families, workers, and communities from the dangerous and costly health effects of fine particle pollution, also known as soot.

“This new standard of 9 micrograms per cubic meter will save lives based on scientific evidence," said Dr. Doris Browne of the National Medical Association. "That is the bottom line. And, as a physician, an advocate for clean air, and the past president of the National Medical Association representing physicians, our ultimate goal is health equity.”

Particle pollution is made mostly when we burn things, and it includes carbon black soot, said Dr. Anne Mellinger Birdsong, the health and medical advisor for Mothers and Others for Clean Air.

Infographic on how air pollution harms people
Credit: The American Lung Association

The nonprofit works with caretakers, health professionals, scientists, teachers, and youth "to amplify their voices to create a shift of individual behaviors and system change so no more children die because of dirty air."

The most recent “State of the Air” report from the American Lung Association shows year-round particle pollution levels in Atlanta were slightly higher than in previous years.

The metro Atlanta area ranked 37th most polluted for year-round particle pollution.

The Augusta metro area, Warner Robins and Albany were in a three-way tie for worst city in the Southeast for short-term particle pollution. Additionally, the Augusta metro area is now the sole worst city in the Southeast for year-round particle pollution.

Clarke, Dougherty, Fulton, Houston, Richmond, and Washington are the Georgia counties now considered too polluted to meet the new standards for soot in the air.  

Birdsong said the changes are good news because soot in the air is particularly dangerous to children and prevents proper lung development, which can affect them into adulthood. 

"My personal opinion is that [these regulations] will save more lives than what EPA calculates because some of the more nebulous ones like autism and developmental delays and things," she said. "It's hard to calculate how much of a contribution the particles have to that."

Soot in the air comes from many sources, and causes dementia, strokes, and heart attacks, Birdsong said, adding that this type of pollution is also associated with diabetes and other metabolic health problems.

The effects of soot are seen in survivors of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. For months afterward, emergency responders and others breathed in air filled with small pieces of the World Trade Center towers. Nearly 80,000 people have physical or mental health conditions stemming from their exposures to 9/11-related conditions. These include cases of cancer, respiratory illness and anxiety disorders that are still being discovered.

Factories, power plants, and diesel- and gasoline-powered motor vehicles (cars, trucks and buses) and equipment either directly emit fine particles or generate other pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), known as precursors because they can then form into fine particles in the atmosphere.

Other sources of particle pollution include wildfires, burning wood in wood stoves or residential fireplaces and burning biomass for electricity.

Diesel school buses are among the most polluting vehicles on the road, and children who ride buses are estimated to be exposed to four times the level of exhaust compared to a car.

Birdsong said Mothers & Others For Clean Air has a grant from Drawdown Georgia to work on encouraging counties to apply for funding from EPA for EV school buses.

The EPA is also funding many other clean energy and clean transportation solutions through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as offering tax credits or rebates to individuals buying certain appliances, new and used EV cars, and other residential clean energy solutions, Birdsong said.

Advocates of clean air want folks to know weatherization and energy conservation can be done on an individual basis.

"Walk or bike whenever possible, eat a plant-forward diet (not necessarily vegetarian but a higher percentage of food as plants), use electric vehicles (scooters and ebikes, passenger and heavy duty vehicles) as much as possible," Birdsong said. "Power companies can build utility scale solar and wind with storage; every government building can be covered with solar panels; we can put charging stations everywhere."

The main thing we can do to get ahead of this is to encourage clean energy and clean transportation, Birdsong said. We have two years to bring parts of Georgia into compliance.

"If we can make changes now, many parts of the state that are just over the limit won't be out of compliance in 2026 when EPA decides which areas meet the standard," she said.