Safety
Legal and Regulatory

Breath of Fresh Air

Serene Al-Momen offers her opinion on the new air quality standards, consequences and the impact on the construction industry.
By Rachel E. Pelovitz
January 31, 2023
Topics
Safety
Legal and Regulatory

For the first time since 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency updated and strengthened air quality standards. Construction sites are responsible for 14.5% of particulate matter in the air and 8% of total emissions in the United States.

With that in mind, Construction Executive has spoken with Serene Al-Momen, Ph.D. and chief executive officer of Attune, in an exclusive interview. Al-Momen is an expert in air quality and offers her opinion on standards, consequences and the impact on the construction industry—which she has specific experience with due to Attune’s relationship with Clark Construction, a member of Associated Builders and Contractors.

CONSTRUCTION EXECUTIVE: What is important about air quality standards in general?

Serene Al-Momen: Air quality standards regulate the amount of pollution that's allowed to be emitted into the atmosphere.

CE: How do air quality standards relate to the construction industry?

New buildings emit emissions into the air that contribute to pollution and particulate matter in the air. Sometimes we call them “soot” in the industry. They come from construction sites and unpaved roads, which is what prompted the EPA and the Biden Administration to strengthen the National Air Quality Standards.

In January 2023, the EPA changed the thresholds for annual particulate matter size (PM) from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to be between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter, which is more stringent. That's just a reflection of the latest health data and scientific evidence regarding how important it is to reduce the levels of particles in the air.

Is the new guidance going to have a big impact on construction?

Yes. It is more stringent, which signals construction companies to pay attention because the EPA is making changes. Whether you build new buildings or renovate existing buildings, the guidelines, in addition to helping reduce pollution, are also promoting energy and resource efficiency, reducing weight and improving indoor environmental and air quality and other factors. So altogether this is a big change, and it's definitely going to touch construction because all of these things are related to buildings.

The EPA regulations specify that harmful air pollution coming from construction sites specifically, as well as [heavy/highway], fuels fires that disproportionately impact underserved communities.

This is calling the industry to pay more attention because soot can have lasting and devastating impacts on people's health. Strengthening those air quality standards will hopefully help to ensure healthier, more sustainable communities and buildings.

Why has the EPA created this new guidance? Is it related to climate change?

Yes, climate change is the primary driver for the updated regulation. The Biden Administration’s big goal is to lessen the impact of pollution by strengthening those PM standards.

What would be the consequences of not following the new guidance?

Particulate matter in the air can penetrate really deep into people's lungs, which can result in serious health effects that include asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature death. So, particulate matter, PM and pollution are really important to keep an eye on.

Unfortunately, the bad levels affect vulnerable populations the most, including children, older adults, those with heart and lung conditions, as well as communities of color and low-income communities throughout the United States. In addition, the construction employees themselves are exposed to some of that as they're doing the work.

Are there any legal ramifications if companies choose not to follow the guidance?

Not that we're seeing right now. I think that's typical with new changes because they start with guidance, see how people react and then figure out if there should be accountability.

How can contractors adhere to the guidance?

Climate change is pushing polluted air indoors. So, for that reason, air monitoring should be incorporated in new and existing buildings. This way, building operators will be better informed on how they can address how to keep tenants, occupants, employees, students, etc. healthy.

are there other ways to comply?

The design, operation and maintenance of buildings can impact the air that we breathe. The materials that are used are also important. So there's a big shift in the construction industry to use better materials that are not emitting more pollution. Buildings and contractors should consider the impact on occupant health and well-being, sustainability, energy efficiency and changing indoor conditions.

WHEN DID CLARK CONSTRUCTION IMPLEMENT AIR MONITORING AND WHAT DO THEY THINK OF IT?

Clark started using Attune to monitor air in 2018 or 2019; it has been a leader in recognizing the importance of doing that. The air quality monitoring purpose for Clark is twofold. First, to comply with regulations. Second, to keep workers healthy because the company recognizes that construction sites are rough environments when it comes to air quality. If there are concerns, the company is able to find out and mitigate in real time. They’re going strong.

What do you think of the new guidance?

I think it's great that, for the first time since 2012, the EPA updated and strengthened quality standards to better protect communities from harmful particles such as soot and pollution. It's a great signal that the country's moving in a direction to really take care of people and communities. Hopefully we’ll see some implementations and adoption very soon.

by Rachel E. Pelovitz

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