- Former members of an Environmental Protection Agency scientific review panel are ramping up their criticisms of the agency's decision to maintain current particulate matter (PM) standards, despite scientific evidence that doing so could lead to tens of thousands of premature deaths annually in the United States.
- The members of the panel on Thursday published a peer-reviewed paper to the New England Journal of Medicine that makes the case for a more stringent particulate matter air quality standard, in the hopes that their concerns will be on record when EPA is inevitably sued, former chair of the EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee Chris Frey told Utility Dive.
- In 2018, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler disbanded the panel of 20 independent experts on particulate pollution, caused by coal burning and other industrial processes. EPA then in April of this year issued a proposal to keep National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for particulate matter the same, despite warnings from that panel that doing so would be harmful to human health and the environment.
EPA has come under fire from lawyers, scientists, environmentalists, health experts and others in recent months for not moving aggressively enough on air and water quality protections, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's egregious and unconscionable that the administrator is disregarding the science and disregarding the law," said Frey, a professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University. "The only way that the administrator can come up with a decision to keep an outdated standard under which thousands of people are dying every year is to just disregard the evidence."
Under the Clean Air Act the EPA is required to periodically review standards for six primary pollutants, based on human health and environmental impacts. In reviewing the NAAQS standard, EPA determined to keep the standard at PM2.5, "after carefully reviewing this scientific evidence and consulting with the agency's independent science advisors," an EPA spokesperson told Utility Dive in an email.
PM2.5 is the measure of inhalable particles that are 2.5 micrometers and smaller.
EPA noted that a draft assessment of the panel's review of scientific documents found that more review was needed to determine the full health impacts of particulate matter. However, additional comments "which were not fully addressed" will be incorporated into future Integrated Science Assessments, said the spokesperson.
After the original particulate matter review panel was dismissed in 2018 via press release, EPA formed a new seven-member committee, which concluded there was not "a sufficiently comprehensive, systematic assessment of the available science relevant to understanding the health impacts of exposure to PM."
But the dismissed panel, which formed a new voluntary nongovernmental Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel, wrote in a 183-page letter that evidence did indeed exist that annual exposure to PM2.5 does cause premature deaths. More recent evidence has found "exposure to ambient PM2.5 at the levels of the current standards is estimated by the EPA to be responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths in the United States each year."
"The epidemiologic evidence is consistent across studies with diverse designs, populations, pollutant mixtures, locations, and statistical approaches," the group wrote. Populations with preexisting conditions and low income communities that live near major industrial sites are at higher risk. A standard of PM8 to PM10 is recommended by the group, but "even at the lower end of the range, risk is not reduced to zero."
EPA said it will continue receiving and considering additional input during the comment period, which lasts until June 29.
But Frey and the independent panel write that this is just another step in the EPA's dismissal of scientific evidence under the Trump Administration.
Under the Trump Administration, Wheeler and former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt "completely undermined and jerry-rigged the process toward, not an evidence-based outcome, but to set the stage to get a policy outcome that's consistent with their ideological policy agenda of deregulation," said Frey.
"I can't think of anything the Administration has done that would lead toward health protective standards."