(CN) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may soon adopt a method of assessment that ignores a majority of science showing air pollution harms human health, and experts are sounding the alarm ahead of a March 28 meeting to discuss the proposed change.
EPA officials under the Trump administration first gutted the panels of experts that advise the agency on how the two major air pollutants – ozone and particulate matter – affect human health. The seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) was established under the Clean Air Act as an independent group of experts that advises the EPA on ambient air pollutant standards. Their input is beefed up by recommendations from 11 pollutant-specific panels of experts.
But the EPA disbanded the particulate matter review panel this past October and decided not to appoint an epidemiologist – an expert on the causes of human diseases – to its current committee, a change from previous panels.
Now, officials want to change the process the EPA uses to ensure that air pollution standards are based on science. Experts say the changes would require the agency to ignore the majority of the best available science.
The link between air pollution and disease has been validated by numerous groups of highly regarded government and independent scientists, and the most current research has found strong evidence for an increased risk of death from exposure to fine particulate matter, even at levels below the current safety standards.
But an advisory letter from CASAC chair Louis Anthony Cox Jr. criticized science gathered and debated by previous members of the panels as “unverifiable opinion.” Cox pushed for tossing out all data that does not meet the strictest of standards. Under his proposal, the agency would base policies only on studies that show “manipulative causation”: direct evidence that a specific regulation would cause a public health benefit.
That standard would abandon a globally validated way to measure deadly air pollution and adopt “a nearly unattainable burden of proof,” according to a letter published by two scientists Thursday in the journal Science.
Letter co-author Gretchen Goldman, an expert on the health effects of air pollution and research director for the Center for Science and Democracy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Cox’s letter “trashed” the agency’s science assessment that synthesized science on the health impacts of air pollution.
“It’s striking to see the head of the EPA trash its work like this,” Goldman said in a phone interview. “It’s a robust document that includes everything we know about the effects of pollution on health and welfare. He’s calling it unverifiable opinion and wants the EPA to go back to drawing board.”
Goldman said Cox’s proposal puts the EPA in an awkward position. While it is not legally obligated to take CASAC’s advice, not doing so could erode the importance of peer review in interpreting data on air pollution and risks unraveling an institution that has been a vital part of drafting air pollution standards.
CASAC will meet March 28 to discuss whether to adopt Cox’s proposal.
“The Clean Air Act mandates that the EPA sets standard on what protects public health,” Goldman said. “It’s difficult to imagine the EPA being able to do that if Cox gets his way and we remove a lot of the science that we use to set that standard.”