WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new standard for soot pollution on Friday that will force industry, utilities and local governments to find ways to reduce emissions of particles that are linked to thousands of cases of disease and death each year.
The agency, acting under a court deadline, is proposing an annual standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air, a significant tightening from the previous standard of 15 micrograms, set in 1997, which a federal court found too weak to adequately protect public health. The new standard is in the middle of the range of 11 to 13 micrograms per cubic meter that the E.P.A.'s science advisory panel recommended.
Communities must meet the new standard by 2020 or face possible penalties, including loss of federal transportation financing.
The E.P.A. based its action on health studies that found that exposure to fine particles -- in this case measuring 2.5 micrometers in diameter -- brought a marked increase in heart and lung disease, acute asthma attacks and early death. Older people, adults with heart and lung conditions and children are particularly susceptible to the ill effects of breathing in soot particles.
The agency estimates the benefit of the new rule at $4 billion to $9 billion a year, and the annual costs of putting it into effect at $53 to $350 million.
"These fine particles penetrate deep into the lungs, causing serious and costly health effects," said Lisa P. Jackson, the E.P.A. administrator. "As the mother of two sons who have battled asthma, the benefits are not just numbers or abstract concepts."
Today 66 counties in eight states do not meet the new standard, including the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. (All of the counties in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut already meet the revised exposure level.) The E.P.A. estimates that by 2020, when the rule is fully in force, only seven counties, all of them in California, will still be out of compliance. Other rules already in effect governing mercury, sulfur and other pollution from vehicles, factories and power plants will bring about that reduction.
"We know clearly that particle pollution is harmful at levels well below those previously deemed to be safe," Dr. Norman H. Edelman, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, said in a statement. "By setting a more protective standard, the E.P.A. is stating that we as a nation must protect the health of the public by cleaning up even more of this lethal pollutant."
"It will save lives," he said.
Utility industry officials pleaded with the E.P.A. on Thursday to delay the release of the new rule, arguing that the standard is based on incomplete science and would impose costly new burdens on states and cities.
Utilities, joined by trade associations representing manufacturers, chemical companies and the oil and gas industry, said the new rule would push many communities into noncompliance, making it more difficult to obtain permits for new businesses that create jobs.
Scott H. Segal, representing a coalition of coal companies and utilities, wrote to Ms. Jackson, the E.P.A. administrator, pointing to a 2011 study saying that citing counties for noncompliance "increases energy prices, reduces manufacturing productivity and causes local manufacturing companies to exit the areas that are designated as being in nonattainment."
Six senators, led by Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, wrote Ms. Jackson on Friday expressing concern about the new rule.
"E.P.A. should not rush at this time toward imposing more regulatory burdens on struggling areas," the lawmakers wrote.
Advocates of the new rule said these complaints were overblown.
"While the health benefits are extensive, opponents of common-sense pollution standards are repeating false time-worn claims that clean air is too costly," said Vickie Patton, general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Jeffrey R. Holmstead, who led the E.P.A.'s air quality office in President George W. Bush's administration and who now represents business clients, took a more sanguine view of the agency's action than many other industry spokesmen.
He said the impact of the new rule would depend on how the E.P.A. chooses to enforce it.
"Normally, a new standard means a rash of new regulations, but E.P.A. claims that virtually every area of the country will meet the new standard without the need for new regulatory requirements," he said in an e-mail. "If so, then maybe the new standard won't cause the type of economic disruption that we've seen in the past.
"In recent years," he added, "a new air quality standard like this one has caused big delays for companies trying to build new plants or expand existing operations. I think a lot of people are holding their breath and hoping that we won't see the same thing this time around."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.