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Opinion | Detroit priest: Save lives by tightening soot pollution limits

As a Catholic priest, I hear about many things that impact the lives of families. I am surprised how frequently respiratory issues are mentioned. Neighbors wonder: Do we have to pull our kids with asthma indoors today because of the bad air quality? Can we trust living near these factories and breathing the air?

Father Alex Steinmiller
Father Alex Steinmiller, CP, is a Catholic priest serving St. Paul of the Cross Retreat Center in Detroit. He is a member of the national Laudato Si commission of his Passionist religious order.

These concerns are real. Detroit has some of the dirtiest air in the country. The metro area is ranked the 16th worst for year-round soot pollution. Last year, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported that Detroiters were four times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than Michigan residents more broadly.

Soot pollution, caused mostly by the burning of fossil fuels, is a particularly deadly form of air pollution. Soot is composed of extremely fine particles, 1/30th the width of a human hair, that permeate deep into our lung tissue and increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and other medical conditions. 

I was shocked to learn recently that soot pollution is responsible for between 85,000 and 200,000 U.S. deaths a year, according to a study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. That is several times the annual number of murders in the U.S. (about 26,000). And because soot pollution travels freely, it means that all of us are impacted, whether we are breathing the air in urban or rural areas.

As a priest, I am engaged in spiritual and moral facets that span across our lives. This includes how we are to live as a human family on this earth. I believe we are called to care for the health and well-being of each member of this family. We have a moral duty to save lives wherever possible, and environmental destruction is now a major threat.

Recently, the scientific advisory board of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave us cause for hope. The board proposed an updated standard to limit soot concentration that would save an estimated 20,000 lives each year, according to a study commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund. The EPA’s advisory board, supported by the American Lung Association and other groups, recommended a standard of 8 micrograms per cubic meter.

Unfortunately, the EPA backpedaled, countering with a much weaker proposal that would only save 4,000 to 5,000 lives. They are suggesting we should live (or die) with soot concentration in our air of 9 or 10 micrograms. Those additional 15,000 lives that could be saved should be valued, not sacrificed because many in power are slow to change.

The EPA will be finalizing its soot standards soon, after it concluded a listening period with the public at the end of March. A vast array of civic organizations have advocated for stronger standards. They range from health organizations like the National Medical Association, to surprising groups that have a stake in clean air like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Great Lakes Business Network and Hispanic Federation.

Safeguarding the health of everyone is, for me, a moral issue. Every person deserves to breathe clean air, especially children, the elderly and low-income communities.

In a major teaching document called Laudato Si, Pope Francis echoes Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in saying that contaminating our air and water is “a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.” We participate in self-destruction and alienation from God when we poison ourselves with soot, smog, PFAS (“forever chemicals”) and other pollutants. When God has given us the intelligence and innovation to shift to clean alternatives, continuing the needless suffering and death is an affront to our shared humanity.

Without foundational things like clean air to breathe and safe water to drink, we cannot flourish. In the words of Pope Francis, this planet is “our common home.” It is a moral imperative that we protect our home and one another.

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