EPA Keeps Emission Rule Relaxed Despite New Virus Risks

Oil pumps and natural gas burn off in Watford City, N.D. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

WASHINGTON (CN) — A week after a scientific report linked industrial soot emissions to Covid-19 deaths, the Trump administration opted Tuesday not to toughen a regulation on the air contaminant otherwise known to cause heart attacks and lung disease.

Coming off the heels of regulatory action months in the making, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler made clear this morning that the new scientific evidence linking the pollutant to novel coronavirus fatalities does not warrant a change.

“The U.S. has made incredible strides in reducing particulate matter concentrations across the nation,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Based on review of the scientific literature and recommendation from our independent science advisors, we are proposing to retain existing PM standards which will ensure the continued protection of both public health and the environment.”

The standard up for review regulates emission of the inhalable, damaging particles known as PM 2.5 that can lodge deep in the lungs and be carried through the bloodstream. 

Prioritizing industry over public health has long been a hallmark of the EPA under President Donald Trump. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, oil companies had warned that tighter regulation on smokestack emissions would deal a challenging blow to their economic viability. 

Still health experts note that defying science comes at a cost. The EPA’s own website cites data showing that long-term exposure to PM 2.5 can cause heart attacks, lung disease and premature death. 

Maps show (a) U.S. counties with 17-year long-term average of PM2.5 concentrations (2000-16) in g/m3 and (b) the number of Covid-19 deaths per 1 million population at the county level, up to and including April 4, 2020. (Harvard via CNS)

Harvard researchers compounded this research last week with the first nationwide study linking long-term PM 2.5 exposure to Covid-19 death rates. 

The study of 3,080 counties in the United States found that individuals in regions with decades of high levels of the microparticulate pollution were 15% more likely to die from coronavirus, as compared with someone living in a county with one unit less of the PM 2.5.

“The results of this study also underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations during the Covid-19 crisis,” the report concludes. “Based on our result, we anticipate a failure to do so can potentially increase the Covid-19 death toll and hospitalizations, further burdening our healthcare system and drawing resources away from Covid-19 patients.” 

Noting the challenge that limited testing capacity posed to data collection, the Harvard researchers recommended follow-up investigations as more Covid-19 data is made available. They proposed further in depth looks into the impact of PM 2.5 exposure on Covid-19 hospitalization.

Yifang Zhu, associate dean for academic programs at the University of California, Los Angeles, Fielding School of Public Health, said the Covid-19 pandemic is a reason for the Trump administration to act now on revising the PM 2.5 standard set in 2012.

“This is the time to revisit PM 2.5, especially given the new evidence that has been accumulated over the last eight years,” said Zhu, whose research is focused on air pollution, environmental exposure assessment, and aerosol science and technology.

With the Harvard findings out just last week, the report is not expected to be featured in the administration’s legal analysis on the regulation review. 

The current regulation standard, set in 2012, is associated with 45,000 deaths according to a 457-page EPA scientific assessment draft last year. 

Federal researchers wrote that the EPA could drop the death rate by 27%, or 12,150 people, a year if it upped the regulation from limiting the fine soot particles from 12 micrograms per cubic meter — or 1/30th the width of a human hair — to 9 micrograms per cubic meter.

After the findings were made public, oil and coal companies pushed the Trump administration to ignore the draft report, claiming that “significant uncertainty remains about the relationship between exposure to PM 2.5 and adverse effects on public health.”

A final version of the report out this January previewing the upcoming rule still recognized that PM 2.5 contributes to 45,000 annual deaths but argued a firmer standard would trigger a drop in health risks, rather than deaths.

While UCLA’s Zhu said the current PM 2.5 standard has already done significant damage over the years, she also advised that the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity for the federal government to pause and reflect on the impact of air pollution regulations.

“Science and policy, they should work hand in hand,” the professor said. “What the scientific community learns and discovers should be translated into policy.” 

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