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EPA urged to heed warning in study of pollution and COVID-19

Report finds even small increases in particulate matter in the atmosphere can dramatically increase cases

The EPA declined to strengthen rules to limit emissions of particulates.
The EPA declined to strengthen rules to limit emissions of particulates. (CQ Roll Call)

A study showing a link between long-term exposure to pollution and higher COVID-19 deaths is shining a spotlight on the EPA’s role, as public health officials call for the agency to strengthen, not weaken clean air standards.

The report from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which examined about 3,000 counties in the U.S., found even small increases in particulate matter in the atmosphere can dramatically increase COVID-19 cases. 

The Harvard researchers said the study results underscore “the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after” the pandemic.

Following the release of the study, the American Lung Association raised red flags over the EPA’s planned review of air pollution standards.

“The nation has known for some time that long-term exposure to particle pollution can worsen symptoms of lung disease, increase susceptibility to lung infection, trigger heart attack and stroke, and can even cause lung cancer and premature death,” American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer said Tuesday.

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The organization reiterated its call for the EPA to strengthen rather than weaken its air pollution standards or the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which were finalized in 2015 by the Obama administration.

The EPA is required by law to set air quality standards for six main pollutants — carbon monoxide, lead, ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. The agency is required to periodically review those standards to improve public health protections.

However in 2018, then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt directed the agency to fast-track the reviews of the standards for particulate matter and ground-level ozone. Public health advocates worried that under such a hastened process, scientists and the public would be locked out from providing adequate feedback and the EPA wouldn’t effectively review the standards.

Wimmer said the Harvard study provides “additional evidence” to support a “significant strengthening” of the standards.

The Harvard researchers found an increase of 1 microgram particulate matter per cubic meter of air could over the long term could lead to a 15 percent jump in the COVID-19 death rate.

“These findings illustrate that far too many Americans are facing multiple threats to their lung health at once, and when taken together, these different threats to lung health impacts can amplify each other,” Wimmer said. “Even as the Lung Association and the nation respond to the urgent health needs of the COVID-19 crisis, we cannot afford to delay cleanup of dangerous air pollution. In fact, it is more important than ever.”

The EPA is preparing to propose a review of the current standards and expects to issue a proposal this spring, according to Corry Schiermeyer, a spokesperson for the agency.

“EPA is committed to protecting public health by improving air quality and reducing air pollution,” Schiermeyer said in an emailed response. “COVID-19 is a new and evolving situation and scientists are working hard to understand what variables are linked to transmission and vulnerability.”

‘Secret science’

The agency, which is in charge of protecting clean air and water, has also come under fire for relaxing its enforcement of pollution rules, and also continuing to write a rule critics say would undermine the use of scientific data in federal regulations.

The EPA in 2018 proposed a “secret science” rule, which would require data the agency uses in its activities to be replicable and made publicly available.  

While EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and his predecessor Pruitt described the proposal as an effort of transparency, critics say it would effectively censor critical research and limit what data the agency could consider in its work.  

The root of the problem: Huge batches of data, including medical information, must be kept private under law, and while it’s possible to anonymize data sets, doing so is expensive and time-consuming. Scientists say some data cannot be ethically replicated.  

Critics in the scientific community and in Congress warn the rule, which is undergoing public review, would undermine the agency’s ability to carry out its mission and give industry undue influence over environmental policy.    

If the rule were implemented, EPA could look past key studies on particulate matter — fine particles that can lodge in human lungs — and cast a chilling effect over future volunteers for medical research who may fear their personal information could be published.    

“Their intent was to avoid using specific air pollution studies,” Michael Halpern, deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told CQ Roll Call. “One way to do that was to use methods that would violate ethical and medical norms.”

In an address livestreamed by the National Press Club on Tuesday, American Medical Association President Patrice Harris made a plea for the federal government to respect science and scientific data as it addresses the coronavirus pandemic.

Without mentioning specific agencies, Harris said the association is calling for all the government’s scientific institutions, “now and in the future” to be led by experts protected from “political influence.”

“We have witnessed a concerning shift over the last several decades where policy decisions seem to be driven by ideology and politics instead of facts and evidence,” Harris said. “The result is a growing mistrust in American institutions … in science … and in the counsel of leading experts whose lives are dedicated to the pursuit of evidence and reason.”

Benjamin J. Hulac contributed to this story.

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