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What is PM2.5?

Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt,
soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. Particles can be suspended in the air for long periods of
time. Some particles are large or dark enough to be seen as soot or smoke. Others are so
small that individually they can only be detected with an electron microscope.

Many manmade and natural sources emit PM directly or emit other pollutants that react
in the atmosphere to form PM. These solid and liquid particles come in a wide range of

Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they
can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5
micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as "fine" particles and are believed to
pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the
average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.

Where does PM2.5 come from?

Sources of fine particles include all types of combustion activities (motor vehicles, power
plants, wood burning, etc.) and certain industrial processes. Particles with diameters
between 2.5 and 10 micrometers are referred to as "coarse." Sources of coarse particles
include crushing or grinding operations, and dust from paved or unpaved roads. Other
particles may be formed in the air from the chemical change of gases. They are indirectly
formed when gases from burning fuels react with sunlight and water vapor. These can
result from fuel combustion in motor vehicles, at power plants, and in other industrial

Who is most at risk?

Roughly one out of every three people in the United States is at a higher risk of
experiencing PM2.5 related health effects. One group at high risk is active children
because they often spend a lot of time playing outdoors and their bodies are still
developing. In addition, oftentimes the elderly population are at risk. People of all ages
who are active outdoors are at increased risk because, during physical activity, PM2.5
penetrates deeper into the parts of the lungs that are more vulnerable to injury.

How can I find out about PM2.5 levels in my community?

Air quality forecasts are often given with weather forecasts on local television and radio
stations, and may be found on the weather page of your newspaper. Another way to learn
about unhealthy exposures is to check daily Air Quality Index forecasts. Visit to find the forecast for an area near you.

What does nonattainment mean?

The Clean Air Act identifies six common air pollutants that are found all over the United
States. These pollutants can injure health, harm the environment and cause property
damage. EPA calls these pollutants criteria air pollutants because the agency has
developed health-based criteria (science-based guidelines) as the basis for setting
permissible levels in the air we breath. PM2.5 is a criteria pollutant. EPA establishes
national ambient air quality standards for each of the criteria pollutants. These standards
apply to the concentration of a pollutant in outdoor air. If the air quality in a geographic
area meets or is cleaner than the national standard, it is called an attainment area; areas
that don't meet the national standard are called nonattainment areas.

In order to improve air quality in a nonattainment area, states must draft a plan known as
a state implementation plan (SIP). The plan outlines the measures that the state will take
in order to improve air quality. Once a nonattainment area meets the standards and
additional redesignation requirements in the Clean Air Act [Section 107(d)(3)(E)], EPA
will designate the area to attainment as a "maintenance area."

What does designation mean?

States and tribes submit recommendations to the EPA as to whether or not an area is
attaining the national ambient air quality standards for a criteria pollutant. The states and
tribes base these recommendations on air quality data collected from monitors at
locations in urban and rural settings. After working with the states and tribes and
considering the information from air quality monitors, EPA will then "designate" an area
as attainment or nonattainment for the PM2.5 standard. If an area is designated as
nonattainment it signifies to the public that the air in the area is unhealthy to breathe.

What will my area need to do to improve air quality if it is designated nonattainment for

States with designated nonattainment areas are required under the Clean Air Act to
develop a State Implementation Plan and submit it to EPA within three years (around
April 2008). (Tribes may elect to develop tribal implementation plans but are not required
to do so.) This plan must include enforceable measures for reducing air pollutant
emissions leading to the formation of fine particles in the atmosphere. The plan must also
provide steps for the area to attain the PM2.5 standards as quickly as possible, and the area
must show how it will make reasonable progress toward attaining the standards.
In assessing how quickly an area can attain the standards, states should consider the air
quality improvements that can be achieved from a combination of national, state, and
local measures. For example, states should take into account existing emission reduction
programs (e.g. national emission standards for cars and trucks; and the Clean Air
Interstate Rule to reduce powerpolant emissions; or local efforts such as diesel engine
retrofit programs), plus any new programs or regulations that can be implemented within
the state or local nonattainment area.

What information does EPA use to determine whether an area should be a "nonattainment

The Clean Air Act defines a nonattainment area as the area that is violating the national
ambient air quality standard OR a nearby area that is contributing to a violation of the
PM2.5 standards. The PM2.5 standards are based on averaging air quality measurements
both annually and on a 24 hour basis. The annual standard for PM2.5 is met whenever the
3 year average of the annual mean PM2.5 concentrations for designated monitoring sites in
an area is less than or equal to 15.0 µg/m3. The 24 hour standard for PM2.5 is met
whenever the 3 year average of the annual 98th percentile of values at designated
monitoring sites in an area is less than or equal to 35 µg/m3.

In addition to air quality data, EPA guidance on the PM2.5 designations process also
discusses other important factors, including emissions of pollutants that lead to PM2.5
formation, population, commuting patterns, and expected growth, that states should
evaluate in order to determine whether a county is a likely contributor to the area’s air
quality problem.

How can I participate in the designation process?

You can follow the designation process for the PM2.5 standard in your state by contacting
your state environmental agency, attending public hearings related to the designations
process in your area, and keeping informed about the current status of the designations
process from this Web site and state Web sites.

What is EPA doing to reduce PM2.5 levels?

EPA has a number of programs already in place that will help reduce emissions from
power plants, cars, and other sources of emissions that lead to the formation of fine
particles. More information on these programs can be found on the following sites:

Programs in Place
- Efforts to Reduce PM - General overview.

- Tier II standards for passenger cars and light trucks - Finalized February 2000.

- Diesel Engine Retrofit Programs - Voluntary programs to reduce diesel engine


- Clean Air Nonroad Diesel Emissions Rule - a comprehensive national program

requiring stringent emissions controls on diesel engines used in construction, agriculture,
and mining and significantly reducing the sulfur content of diesel fuel.

- Clean Air Interstate Rule - Permanently caps powerplant emission of particle forming
sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the eastern US.

What is the litigation history of the 1997 PM2.5 standards?

After EPA promulgated the PM2.5 and 8-hour ozone standards in July 1997, several
industry organizations and state governments challenged EPA's action in the U.S. Court
of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (the D.C. Circuit). On May 14, 1999, the
three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit held in a split decision that the Clean Air Act, as
applied by EPA in setting the 1997 standards for PM and ozone, was unconstitutional as
an improper delegation of legislative authority to EPA. The ruling did not question the
science or decision-making process used to establish the standards. The Court remanded
the PM2.5 standards to EPA but did not vacate them. In June 1999, the Department of
Justice (DOJ) and EPA petitioned the Court for a rehearing en banc with the entire D.C.
Circuit Court. On October 29, 1999, the Court denied the petition for rehearing.

The DOJ and EPA then filed a petition for certiorari with the United States Supreme
Court in December 1999 to appeal the decision of the D.C. Circuit, and the Supreme
Court issued its decision to hear the appeal in November 2000. The Supreme Court issued
its decision on the merits of the appeal on February 27, 2001. In that decision, the
Supreme Court held that EPA's approach to setting the National Ambient Air Quality
Standards in accordance with the CAA did not constitute an unconstitutional delegation
of authority. The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the constitutionality of the CAA
provision that authorizes the Agency to set national air quality standards, stating that this
provision "fits comfortably within the scope of discretion permitted by our precedent."
The Supreme Court also affirmed that the CAA requires EPA to set standards at levels
necessary to protect the public health and welfare, without considering the economic
costs of implementing the standards. The Supreme Court remanded several other issues
back to the D.C. Circuit, including the issue of whether EPA acted arbitrarily and
capriciously in establishing the specific levels of the standards.

The D.C. Circuit heard arguments in this remanded case in December 2001, and issued its
decision on March 26, 2002. The D.C. Circuit found that the Agency had "engaged in
reasoned decision making," rejecting the claim that the Agency had acted arbitrarily and
capriciously in setting the levels of the standards. This last decision by the D.C. Circuit
gave EPA a clear path to move forward with implementation of the PM2.5 standards.