We Put Science Back into EPA Air Pollution Standards, But…

Before dawn on the morning of October 10, 2019, the four of us gathered in a small hotel conference room outside Washington, D.C. Knowing there would soon be many eyes on us, we made sure the technology was working, the room was ready and the coffee was served. Everything needed to be right; many hours and late nights had been devoted to making the day happen. In under six weeks, we planned an event that would normally have been organized over a period of months by career staff at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But we had to move quickly if we wanted our meeting to inform a decision that would affect the health of the entire nation.

This meeting should have been convened by the EPA. Instead, we did it ourselves, compensating for the EPA administrator’s abdication of his responsibility to use science to protect public health. Exactly one year prior to that day, then acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler disbanded the 20-member Particulate Matter Review Panel—a key group of experts on the health and environmental effects of particulate matter—needed to accurately assess the latest science informing our national air pollution standards. Particulate matter is a pollutant mixture that kills thousands of susceptible people prematurely every year in the United States and sickens many more.

Disbanding the panel broke with long-standing precedent. For decades, such pollutant-specific panels have been a key component of the EPA’s process for setting health-based air pollution standards. And the EPA has largely succeeded in setting health-protective standards, even in the face of tremendous financial or political pressures to do otherwise. In fact, the EPA process has been revered as the gold standard in science-based policymaking. Yet, in one press release, and without any advance notice, EPA leaders dismissed the panel without explanation. It was a slap in the face to the scientific community and a punch in the gut to the American public who rely on the agency to protect them from air pollution.

Without the panel, the EPA was left to review the standards with only a smaller seven-member committee, known as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). Up until now, that committee has been augmented with pollutant-specific panels that have the breadth, depth and diversity of expertise, experience and perspectives in key fields including epidemiology, toxicology, medicine, air quality, human exposure to air pollution, risk assessment and more. Now that expertise was absent.

To top off this elimination of science advice, the remaining seven-member committee isn’t pulling the scientific weight it used to. Earlier in 2019, EPA leaders restructured the committee, filling most seats with state and local government representatives and naming an industry consultant the chair. To address the missing expertise that resulted from nixing the panel, EPA leaders installed a group of consultants who communicated with the committee in a less open way. These disruptions to the process and people involved are a far cry from the group of leading researchers, predominantly from academia, engaging in an open, in-depth discussion on the state of the science, that had been the norm. Together, these changes to the EPA’s long-standing robust process for ensuring science-based air pollution protections raised questions about whether the agency would have the science advice it needed for particulate matter and that’s the gap we filled.   

On this day, in a hotel conference room outside D.C., we restored that crucial scientific process. Twenty independent scientific experts who were dismissed by the Trump administration had agreed to meet anyway. They donated their time and expertise to ensure thoughtful science advice from the right experts informed an administration that didn’t even want it. We ran the meeting as if it were run by EPA, complete with former EPA staff. It was livestreamed and attended by the public and journalists. We invited and received public comments. We followed EPA ethics rules to the best of our ability, and we insured the same kind of legal and scientific input was available to the panel.

The panel was chaired by CASAC veteran (and one of the authors) Chris Frey, who ensured that the panel’s advice would inform the administration and its remaining science advisors in their review of the science and policy recommendations on the particulate pollution standards. The panel developed a 183-page report detailing their science advice. An important conclusion: the panelists agreed with EPA staff that the current standard for annual exposure to fine particles is inadequate to protect public health and should be strengthened, and went further in recommending strengthening other particle standards. When CASAC met the following week, the panel recommendations were the elephant in the room. In the end, the rigged committee was split, with some members agreeing with the panel that current standards didn’t protect public health, and others recommending no changes to the standards.

Now EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has proposed to keep the particulate matter standards unchanged—despite the advice of the 20-member panel of top experts in the field of particulate matter and health (who were originally appointed by EPA in 2015), despite the advice of EPA scientists, and despite the scientific evidence that every year thousands of people experience adverse health effects and premature death at pollution levels below the current standards.

It is clear to us how science tips the scale. Keeping the current standards won’t protect public health. It would prioritize short-term profit taking for some regulated industries over the greater economic and health damages that will affect disproportionately the most vulnerable among us, including the elderly, children and people with lung diseases. By ignoring the science, the administration is risking our health.

That October day and ever since, the organizers and members of the reconvened panel have worked hard to ensure that Administrator Wheeler has the science advice he needs to make the right decision. Now we must insist that he does. There is now an opportunity for public comment on the draft particulate matter rule. This is the time to speak up. The EPA should follow the advice of the panel. When we huddled in that small conference room for two days straight, we didn’t do so for our own gain. We did it to ensure that the nation had the opportunity to follow the science. And we did it to allow people across the country the chance to have air pollution standards that protect their health. We did our homework. Now it’s time for Administrator Wheeler to do his.  

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