New air quality standards rolled out by the Environmental Protection Agency on Feb. 7 could mean a worse air quality designation for Travis County.

The new standards could give Travis and nine other Texas counties a “nonattainment” designation for fine particulate matter pollution, commonly known as soot pollution, if they don’t improve by 2032.

Travis County was passing the previous standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, but the EPA’s new standards now consider fine particulate matter pollution above 9 micrograms per cubic matter to be unhealthy.

Fine particulate matter are tiny particles that can be made up of dust, soot, smoke, fire or chemicals emitted from construction sites or unpaved roads.

These tiny, inhalable particles are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. The average human hair, which is 70 micrometers in diameter, is 30 times larger than the biggest fine particulate matter particle. A microgram is one-millionth of a gram.

Local monitors recorded an average of 9.3 micrograms per cubic meter for Travis County from 2020-22. For reference, the World Health Organization's guidelines for annual air pollution level of exposure is only 5 micrograms per cubic meter.

Austin-area air quality could be reclassified from “good” to "moderate,” triggering new planning requirements and regulations. Irrespective of any designation changes, the EPA’s new standards mean Travis County’s current air quality is posing health risks to vulnerable populations, and improving them will be a challenge for local governments.

The impact

Fine particle pollution is one of the most dangerous kinds of pollution, as the tiny particles can penetrate deep into the lungs or even enter the bloodstream, according to the EPA. Long- or short-term exposure can lead to higher rates of asthma attacks, missed school or work days, emergency room visits and premature death, EPA officials said.

A study released March 18 by Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin found that Austin neighborhoods with worse air pollution were linked to higher rates of asthma-related trips to the emergency room. The study also found that Black and Latino residents were more likely to live in Austin neighborhoods with comparatively worse air quality.

EPA officials project that improving air quality standards from 12 to 9 micrograms per cubic meter could lead to the following impacts nationwide:
  • 2,000 avoided emergency room visits
  • 5,700 avoided cases of asthma onset
  • 800,000 avoided cases of asthma symptoms
  • 1,000 avoided hospital admissions for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases
  • 300 avoided stroke and lung cancer incidences
  • 38,000 avoided hay fever symptoms
The context

Travis County officials have historically supported initiatives that provide clean air for its residents; however, Adele Noel, Travis County’s environmental project manager for air quality, said said meeting the EPA’s new standards may be out of the local government’s hands.

“Some of this stuff, we just can't control it. There's nothing that we can do to stop the sugarcane burning. There's nothing that we can do to stop the Sahara Desert dust from blowing into our region,” Noel said,” But there are things that we can do. And that's what we're working on.”

The county has several employee programs aimed at reducing emissions, such as its telework policy and compressed work week options that allow county employees to arrive or leave work at nonpeak traffic hours. The county also offers free transit passes for all employees, and showers and lockers for employees who bike or walk to work.

Beyond employee programs, the county is in the process of paving unpaved roads, retrofitting its buildings with LED lights and installing solar panels wherever possible. The county also uses propane lawn mowers to manicure sports fields, as gas-powered mowers are worse than cars when it comes to polluting air, Noel said.

Otherwise, the county has limited power when it comes to enforcing more sweeping changes that could improve air quality, Noel said.

“We're restricted to only activities that are explicitly delegated to a county by the state constitution or statutes,” Noel said. “What that means is, we can't just go out there and make up new regulations and new requirements.”

The why

The EPA is required to review its air quality standards every five years per the Clean Air Act. In 2021, the EPA announced it would reconsider its 2020 decision to maintain the 2012 standards as new data revealed they “may not be adequate to protect public health and welfare,” EPA officials said.

Counties that don’t meet the EPA’s new standards and are later declared nonattainment will have to follow additional planning requirements, according to the agency.

One such requirement is an emissions test that gas-powered cars must pass to be registered in the county; however, both Travis and Williamson counties voluntarily signed up for emissions testing programs in 2006, Noel said.

What else?

The EPA’s new air quality standards have faced criticism by Attorney General Ken Paxton, who filed a lawsuit against President Joe Biden's administration March 8 and said in a news release that the EPA's new air quality standards are not based on sound science and will impose significant economic harm on Texas. He said the new rule will result in the closure of manufacturing and industrial facilities, and put workers out of jobs.

Travis County officials have not stated their position on the lawsuit.

Melissa Enaje contributed to this report.