EPA refuses to tighten rules on particulate pollution, linked by scientists to coronavirus deaths | Environment

Christel Deskins

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. In April, as coronavirus cases multiplied across the country, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected scientists’ advice to tighten air pollution standards for particulate matter, […]

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In April, as coronavirus cases multiplied across the country, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected scientists’ advice to tighten air pollution standards for particulate matter, or soot.

In the next few weeks, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler likely will reaffirm that decision with a final ruling, despite emerging evidence that links particulate pollution to COVID-19 deaths.

There was enough evidence to support a stricter standard before the pandemic, said Christopher Frey, an environmental engineering professor at North Carolina State University who studies air pollution. The added threat from the coronavirus is like “icing on the cake.”

Particulate matter kills people. “It is responsible for more deaths and sickness than any other air pollutant in the world,” said Gretchen Goldman, a research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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Wheeler’s decision was specifically about fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, microscopic solid and liquid droplets less than one-thirtieth the width of a human hair. The pollution comes from cars, power plants, wildfires and anything that burns fossil fuels. It causes health complications that can lead people to die earlier than they would have, and it is linked to conditions such as COPD, asthma and diabetes.

Frey was part of a 26-member scientific panel that advised the EPA on particulate pollution until Wheeler disbanded the group in 2018. Twenty of the former members continued to review the science and provided unofficial advice to Wheeler as part of the public comment process. Their letter told Wheeler— a former coal lobbyist — that tightening the standard would avoid tens of thousands of premature deaths per year.

Firing the advisory panel and opting not to pursue a more stringent particulate standard were in keeping with the administration of President Donald Trump’s dim view of environmental regulation. By one tally compiled by The New York Times, 72 regulations on air, water and soil pollution, climate change and ecosystems have been canceled or weakened, with an additional 27 in progress. EPA leadership has sidelined or ignored research by agency scientists, and career staff are censoring their reports to avoid terms like “climate change” out of fear of repercussions from political staff.

The EPA has an “apparatus of particulate matter science denial” that rivals its attacks on climate science, Frey said. “If I wanted to get rid of [regulations on] particulate matter, I would do all the things Wheeler is doing.”

Wheeler made his decision “after carefully reviewing [the] scientific evidence and consulting with the agency’s independent science advisors,” an EPA spokesperson said in a statement. “The U.S. now has some of the lowest fine particulate matter levels in the world, five times below the global average, seven times below Chinese levels, and 20 percent lower than France, Germany and Great Britain.”

These standards are set “based on protection of human health,” not how the levels compare to elsewhere, Michael Brauer, a public health professor at the University of British Columbia, said in an email. There are “ample studies” demonstrating health effects when particulate pollution is at levels “well below” the current standard, he said.

A coalition of industry groups including the National Mining Association, American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce submitted comments to the EPA in April after Wheeler proposed keeping the regulation unchanged.

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“The evidence indicates that the current suite of [particulate matter standards] protects public health, including the health of at-risk populations, with an adequate margin of safety,” they wrote. More stringent standards “cannot be justified, given the substantial uncertainties in, and limitations of, the scientific evidence.”

Complying with a new standard could cost the manufacturing sector nearly $20 billion and complicate the permitting process for business expansions that benefit the economy, they wrote.

Wheeler’s decision could delay stronger regulation for years. The Clean Air Act dictates a meticulous process for considering a new standard; each review usually takes at least five years, Goldman said. If Trump loses the election and a Joe Biden administration restarts the particulate review process right away, “we’re really looking at a decade before people are incentivized to reduce particulate pollution,” she said.

Ignoring evidence, pausing enforcement

While scientists have yet to prove that exposure to air pollution increases the risks of dying from COVID-19, a mounting body of research suggests a link. Researchers in the U.K. and Italy have found correlations between high COVID-19 mortality rates and elevated pollution levels. A study conducted by the State University of New York and ProPublica found an association between COVID-19 mortality, particulate pollution from diesel engines and hazardous air pollutants — a class of chemicals that can cause cancer. Hazardous air pollutants are often found attached to particulate matter.

The comments from the industry coalition against strengthening the regulation emphasized the “preliminary” and “evolving” nature of research on air pollution and the coronavirus. If relevant peer-reviewed science becomes available, they said, “EPA could consider them during the next PM [standards] review.”

It’s too early for conclusive evidence on the coronavirus and particulate matter, said Brauer, the University of British Columbia professor. There is, however, plenty of evidence from other respiratory illnesses showing that “if you’re exposed to an infection and at the same time exposed to pollution, that infection is more likely to become severe.”

Wheeler doesn’t need definitive proof, said Bernard Goldstein, a professor emeritus of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh. The law allows Wheeler to consider a “margin of safety” that acknowledges ongoing research, Goldstein said. “You have two different things that violently attack the same organs” in the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, he added — enough, in his opinion, to say: “I’ve got data showing the dam is about to break.”

Far from acknowledging the pandemic as an added threat, Wheeler has used it to loosen reporting requirements for coal plants and other polluters. The temporary policy, announced on March 26, said the EPA would not penalize businesses that failed to monitor or report pollution, as long as they were “making good faith efforts to comply with their obligations during this difficult time.”

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Nine state attorneys general sued the EPA in response. They dropped the lawsuit after the EPA ended the practice Aug. 31.

An analysis by Claudia Persico, an assistant professor with American University’s Department of Public Administration and Policy in Washington, D.C., and Kathryn Johnson, a doctoral student, found that the EPA’s coronavirus policy led to a 14% increase in particulate matter emissions in roughly 700 counties with major polluters.

An EPA spokesperson says the practice did not permit any additional release of pollutants and pointed instead to a peer-reviewed study led by the University of Minnesota that “reported declines in air pollution during the COVID-19 pandemic.” But that paper only captured what happened in the initial shutdowns, from March 13 through April 21, when many nonessential businesses closed and commuter traffic plummetedOne of the authors, Jesse Berman, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, said his study doesn’t prove or disprove whether the EPA’s lack of enforcement increased pollution. “It just wasn’t designed to do that,” Berman said.

Limiting the role of scientists

The particulate pollution decision shows how the Trump administration has rewritten the rules on how independent science affects regulation, Goldman said.

The latest particulate pollution review kicked off during President Barack Obama’s second term. In 2018, EPA staff scientists published an exhaustive, 1,881-page summary of the science. The report found strong evidence that particulate matter can kill people through its effects on the cardiovascular system.

This article was produced in partnership with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, which are members of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Under normal circumstances, that report would have gone to a review panel of more than 20 outside scientists, including Frey as well as epidemiologists, physicians, biostatisticians and other experts who specialize in particulate pollution. The members work with the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, or CASAC, a seven-member team that helps Wheeler determine the final standard.

But Wheeler dismissed the review panel a few days before it could weigh in on the EPA report. He and his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, also replaced most of the independent scientists on CASAC. It once had a plurality of doctors, biostatisticians and epidemiologists, and it is now dominated by state regulators from Republican states and led by a consultant with close ties to industry. None of them are experts in epidemiology — the study of how diseases affect populations, a linchpin of particulate matter research.

“All of the current members hold Ph.D.s in fields that include health sciences, toxicology, ecology, chemical engineering and risk analysis,” and the majority of CASAC members recommended maintaining the current standard, the EPA spokesperson said. Wheeler has considered the committee’s advice “but is also reviewing additional input provided during the public comment period,” the statement added.

The EPA has turned the entire process into “a sham,” said Lianne Sheppard, a professor of biostatistics and environmental health at the University of Washington. Sheppard served on CASAC from 2015 to 2018 and was a member of the now-dismantled particulate panel. The large panel existed because the science is so vast and complex that “no seven people, no matter how expert they are,” can review the information on their own, Sheppard said.

-Sara Sneath contributed to this report.

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