The EPA wants to limit how much soot you breathe. Here’s what it means for Texas and one of its historic Black towns.
Federal limits on particulate matter commonly known as soot could mean cleaner, safer air for Texans. But environmental experts worry Texas may snub rules.
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Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.
DALLAS — Sandra Crumby’s inhalers are scattered inside her neon green house.
Crumby, a 67-year-old Joppa native, uses the small devices to spray medicine directly into her lungs to keep her heart from failing. She has emphysema, a lung condition that causes shortness of breath. She huffs, puffs and struggles to catch her breath on a sunny day in March as she attempts to say a few words between inhales and exhales.
Crumby blames her illness on her surroundings. Joppa, less than 10 miles south of downtown Dallas, has been cited by some researchers as among the most air-polluted neighborhoods in the city.
The historic freedman’s town has been seen as a dumping ground for “toxic shit,” Crumby said, pointing toward a corridor of industrial facilities a few miles away. Joppa, like so many Black communities across the country, sits right next to industry — a rail yard, a roofing company that produces asphalt shingles and concrete batch plants.
In the air Crumby breathes there are microscopic particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, often referred to as soot. The technical name is particulate matter 2.5, or PM 2.5. These particles, which are 30 times smaller than a single strand of hair, cause air pollution. And this air pollution can lead to health complications. Some scientists call it the deadliest form of air pollution.
Older residents, pregnant people and children are most susceptible to harm from PM 2.5. The particles can trigger asthma and other lung conditions like bronchitis. Other health problems linked to particulate matter are irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma and respiratory diseases.
Sources of PM 2.5 include black smoke coming out of a diesel truck or wildfires, unpaved roads, construction sites, and other chemical reactions like pollutants emitted from power plants, cars and factories.
A 2020 study analyzing Dallas air pollution by Paul Quinn College, “Poisoned by Zip Code,” revealed that Joppa’s ZIP code of 75216 was among the areas in Dallas with the most PM 2.5 air pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed new limits to particulate matter that would require states, counties and tribal governments to meet a stricter air quality standard for PM 2.5. The federal environmental agency proposed the current annual standard for PM 2.5 of 12 micrograms per cubic meter be changed to a level between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter to reflect the latest health data and scientific evidence.
Reducing air pollution has been a prime focus of the Biden administration’s environmental agenda. These new, stricter standards aim to help residents in what the federal government calls “environmental justice communities” like Joppa.
“This proposal will help ensure that all communities, especially the most vulnerable among us, are protected from exposure to harmful pollution,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement when the rule was proposed.
Health experts say it’s not enough
The EPA last revised PM 2.5 standards more than a decade ago.
The federal Clean Air Act requires the EPA to periodically review and evaluate the “adequacy” of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The Trump administration rejected tougher rules in 2020 and decided to retain the standards despite public health officials’ calls for more protective limits rooted in science.
In 2021, the EPA announced it would reconsider that decision under the Biden administration. The federal environmental agency is taking public comment on the proposed standard until March 28.
Health experts are welcoming the long-awaited tighter limits on the dangerous air pollutant but say it’s still not enough.
Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, called the proposed standard “inadequate to protect public health” and said in a press release when the EPA rule was proposed that he was “deeply disappointed” that the agency did not set a tougher rule.
Health experts said a limit of 8 micrograms per cubic meter is the safer choice for public health.
According to the American Lung Association’s 2022 “State of the Air” report, more than 4 in 10 people live in counties with unhealthy air. Recent estimates by a health journal report nearly 7 million people worldwide died because of air pollution, including PM 2.5, in 2019 — equating to 1 in 6 deaths worldwide. And one 2021 estimate states that in the U.S., the number of excess deaths from fine particulates each year is between 85,000 and 200,000, with more of them among people of color.
The EPA projects its proposed annual standard of 9 micrograms per cubic meter would prevent more than 4,000 premature deaths per year.
What new rules might mean for Texas
In Texas, 80 air monitors measure for PM 2.5 in 33 of its 254 counties, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The agency determines the locations of the air monitors based on population trends, reported emissions inventory data and potential local air quality concerns.
The agency is likely to base any decision on the average air quality during a three year period.
If the federal rule were in place today, data by the EPA beginning in 2019 would suggest that eight Texas counties could exceed the proposed annual standard of 9 micrograms per cubic meter, including Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Travis counties.
The proposed rule would require states including Texas to control sources of such pollution, something environmental advocates and experts say the state has neglected to do.
“Particulate matter is something that’s really been ignored by Texas regulators for decades,” said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor in the college of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University.
Cohan said there hasn’t been “stringent” enforcement on PM 2.5 by state regulators because most attention has been given to other forms of air pollution like ozone or smog emitters. He said the new proposed limits could bring a “paradigm shift” and require Texas to focus on particulate matter, too.
Dallas County, which includes Joppa, is an area “of concern,” according to the TCEQ’s August Kaiser, a modeling and assessment specialist with the agency’s data analysis team. Kaiser, who spoke at a virtual public meeting hosted by the agency earlier this month to explain PM 2.5 standards, said counties that do not meet federal air rules will be put through a State Implementation Plan “revision cycle.”
A cycle would require the TCEQ to submit an emissions inventory to the EPA that identifies the types of emission sources present in the area, like refineries, chemical plants and automobile sources. The TCEQ would also be required to supply a plan of attack known as an “attainment demonstration,” which lists the emission control measures and strategies the agency will use to improve air quality in the county. All of this has to be done by a deadline set by the EPA.
Putting new rules into place is a lengthy process. The EPA is projected to finalize the proposed PM 2.5 standard this December or early next year.
Some environmental advocates are bracing for lawsuits. Ilan Levin, Texas director for the Environmental Integrity Project, said Texas could choose to sue once the EPA finalizes soot rules, which would ultimately slow reductions of particulate matter.
“Unfortunately, the state of Texas has, in recent years, been on the same side as those industry lobbyists,” Levin said about Texas’ enforcement of air quality. “I expect the industry lobbyists to sue the EPA,” he said, and that the state will join the industry’s fight.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has a long history of suing the EPA. He sued the agency more than 20 times during the Obama administration.
Joppa demands pollution controls
At certain times during the day, Joppa resident Alicia Kendrick said, a strong smell like a hair perm floats throughout the neighborhood. Kendrick, who moved to Joppa about five years ago, said the neighborhood used to be called “Sloppy Joppa” and she thinks the pungent odor is partly why.
Kendrick said air pollution-reduction proposals such as EPA’s feel intangible.
“It [the proposal] doesn’t mean anything to me. It doesn’t affect me in my everyday life right now,” she said.
Kendrick said change can happen quicker locally. She helps her community learn about PM 2.5 through the Joppa Environmental Health Project, a three-year research project investigating correlations among air pollution, health symptoms and mental health, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The study, led by two Texas A&M University scientists, uses data from community air monitors in the neighborhood to measure particulate matter in the air and group those findings with journal entries from residents tracking their symptoms and recording their feelings.
Natalie Johnson, an environmental toxicologist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health and researcher on the project, said that even the perception of living in a polluted environment causes stress and anxiety, leading to health problems.
“If you’re smelling something, then that’s going to cause you to have some level of stress,” she said.
Kendrick said many of Joppa’s residents are retired. Locals say they love their community because it is peaceful, quiet and isolated — friendly dogs roam the streets ready to bark their hellos to people passing by, there are clucking chickens, and many residents go on daily walks or ride bikes. But Kendrick said many of them are sick.
“There’s an actual need here for change," Kendrick said. “There has to be something we can do.”
Results from the study are expected at the end of March. Johnson, the researcher, said she hopes results can lead to pollution controls for neighborhoods and will inform local and national policy leaders like the EPA about how tougher limits on particulate matter can protect and change people’s lives.
“So ultimately the solution, we think, is how can we prevent this source of pollution from happening in the first place, so close to where people live?” Johnson said.
Disclosure: Rice University and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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