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EPA won’t tighten rule for emissions tied to respiratory illness

Research shows particulate emissions can exacerbate respiratory illness, including COVID-19. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the science is unclear

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)

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said Tuesday the agency would retain but not strengthen air standards for soot pollution, which is linked to tens of thousands of early deaths and heart and lung conditions.

The agency will leave in place the 2012 regulation on particulate matter — technically called PM2.5 — overriding recommendations from nonpartisan EPA officials and independent health experts. Agency experts found in 2019 that regulation “needs strengthening to prevent a substantial number of premature deaths.”

Industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have widely opposed tightening the soot rules. Wheeler told reporters repeatedly he believes the science on particulates, which are fractions of the width of human hair and can lodge in lungs, is not clear. 

“I’m saying that there’s still a lot of uncertainties and that we believe that the current level that was set by the Obama administration is protective of public health,” Wheeler said. “We believe that this threshold is protective based on the scientific data that we have.”

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

The agency made the decision to maintain the soot standards during a global pandemic related to lung health and after a recent study of 3,000 U.S. counties linked small increases in particulate matter pollution with cases of COVID-19, the disease the new coronavirus causes. 

Authors of the study, published last week by Harvard University’s public health school, found a slight increase in particulate matter could in the long term trigger a 15 percent spike in the mortality rate of COVID-19. 

The EPA has unfurled a slew of air pollution proposals during the public health crisis, which has killed more than 20,000 people in the U.S. The agency also rolled back fuel economy standards for cars and trucks and, in mid-March, significantly loosened its pollution regulatory efforts for industry, allowing companies to report on their own if they are meeting legal requirements for air and water pollution during the pandemic.

Established science

Wheeler’s argument that science surrounding particulate matter remains unsettled runs counter to established science on the subject.

Particulate matter is directly responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. and millions worldwide, scientists have repeatedly found.

Researchers in one study, published April 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimated human-made PM pollution “was responsible for” 107,000 early deaths in 2011 and that it cost society $886 billion. A majority of the deaths, 57 percent, were tied to either the transportation, utility or agricultural sectors. A separate study found people of color and the poor possess a higher risk of death due to particulate pollution.

By drawing samples from more than 60 million Medicare patients and data from 2000 through 2012, the researchers showed human health was at risk to particulate matter “below” national standards. 

“This effect was most pronounced among self-identified racial minorities and people with low income,” they wrote. The New England Journal of Medicine published their findings in 2017.  

The EPA is required under federal law to set air quality standards for six main pollutants — carbon monoxide, lead, ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter —  and the agency is required to review them every five years and make changes to improve air quality standards.

In 2018, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt directed the agency to expedite the reviews for particulate matter and ground-level ozone. Environmental advocates have cautioned that a speedy review of the standards could mean the public and scientists are denied the opportunity to provide adequate feedback and the EPA wouldn’t effectively review the standards.

Addressing reporters Tuesday, Wheeler said the Harvard study was not complete because it has not been peer-reviewed and accused scientists of being biased against the agency.

“And I’d have to say, at least in the press, the scientists seem to have a bias,” the administrator said, criticizing news coverage of the decision to permit companies to monitor their own water and air pollution. As written, that decision does not allow pollution increases, he said.

“They either didn’t read the enforcement discretion memo or they didn’t understand it,” Wheeler said of scientists generally. He repeated that phrase twice more.

Health and environmental groups swiftly condemned the agency’s decision not to make soot pollution rules more stringent. 

In a joint statement, 19 health and medical groups, including the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the American Thoracic Society, criticized the proposal, which Wheeler said would be released once the Federal Register clears a backlog.

“Particle pollution is dangerous. It can cause breathing trouble, asthma attacks, COPD exacerbations, heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer, and premature death,” the groups said. “We know that particle pollution is deadly, and that the current limits do not sufficiently protect Americans — especially children with asthma and adults with lung and heart disease.”

GOP support

Republican lawmakers applauded the decision to retain soot regulations, while Democrats said stagnating would hurt the public.

“Today’s announcement is a callous refusal to fulfill EPA’s duty to protect human health and the environment, and yet another failure of leadership from the Trump administration,” Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement. “The health and lives of more Americans will be needlessly put at risk because of it.”

At least 10 House Republicans said they supported EPA’s decision, adding that it would protect jobs in fossil energy industries and noting U.S. emissions of PM are lower than the global average. 

“The current PM standards are among the strictest safeguards in the world,” Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said. “EPA will continue to protect the environment while not placing unnecessary burdens on local communities.”

Because of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. does have lower PM levels than many foreign nations, and millions of early deaths worldwide are linked to soot.

Advocates said EPA rushed the rule to publication, brushing aside scientific and expert input, saying the agency’s position on the regulation was reached before a scientific assessment was complete.

“That’s a clear case of putting the cart before the horse and calls into question whether the final proposal is truly science based,” Hayden Hashimoto, an attorney with the Clean Air Task Force.

Ann Mesnikoff, of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said a White House meeting about particulate emissions that was scheduled for Monday was abruptly canceled over the weekend. She said she received an email at 2:12 a.m. Saturday informing her the meeting had been scratched.

And Paul Billings, senior vice president at the American Lung Association, said in an interview the legal and health foundations exist for EPA to tighten its regulation of particulate matter.

“It’s the most lethal air pollutant, kills tens of thousands of people a year,” Billings said. 

“The respiratory system has markable defenses in your ear, nose, your throat. These particles get past those defenses and get into your blood and can cause a wide range of health effects,” he added. “It’s the stuff that you can’t see that you should be most scared of. That’s what PM is.”

Elvina Nawaguna contributed to this report

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