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EPA Cuts Science Panel That Reviewed Deadly Air Pollutants

A protester in front of the EPA during the Science March in Washington on Earth Day, April 22, 2017. Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call

It seems that every day scientists discover more about the dangers of air pollution. It is well known that it causes heart and lung disease, but studies this year have linked it to dementia and found soot particles in placenta. Most recently, a study published in the Journal of Investigative Medicine found a connection between particulate matter and mouth cancer risk.


But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn't seem to be paying attention. The agency, under the direction of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, is moving to disband a panel of scientists that advise the agency on setting safe levels of particulate matter pollution, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

An EPA official confirmed to The New York Times that the 20-person Particulate Matter Review Panel, which advises the agency on setting safe levels of the microscopic pollutants, was not listed as continuing to meet next year.

"To me this is part of a pattern," Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Research Director Gretchen Goldman told The New York Times. "We're seeing EPA trying to cut science out of the process."

Goldman cited recent agency decisions such as nixing the senior science advisor position and issuing a proposal that would limit the types of scientific studies the EPA can use to make decisions. In the case of particulate matter, this could have deadly consequences, as Goldman explained in a Twitter thread about the decision.

"The end result here could be a weaker particulate standard, not based on science and not protective of public health. PM is responsible for thousands of premature deaths annually in the US. A weaker standard does not help," she wrote.


In a separate blog post, Goldman explained more of the nuances of the EPA's most recent polluter-friendly move.

The U.S. has succeeded in reducing deadly particulate matter pollution because of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), which are reviewed every five years with the help of scientific experts. The teams working on those reviews include the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) and the separate pollution review panels.

Goldman explained why both are essential:

These review panels are comprised of experts on the pollutant under review specifically, allowing the agency to benefit from subject matter expertise. For example, CASAC will include folks with air pollution modeling or monitoring expertise and epidemiologists, but the PM review panel might include experts on the toxicology of particulates or an expert on particulate measurement error. This is especially important because CASAC is small (seven people). No matter how expert, it would not be possible for this group to have working expertise of all elements of the relationship between a pollutant and health AND have that knowledge for all six criteria pollutants under CASAC's purview. As a result, EPA decisions on pollution standards can benefit from scientific expertise on all facets of the science on particulates and health.

But in a Wednesday news release, Wheeler announced that he would add five people to CASAC and task that group with revising particulate matter and ozone standards, with no mention of the separate advisory panels.

Goldman speculated that the Trump administration was attempting to fast-track the air quality standards review process in order to set new standards before the end of its time in office. That would be a boon to polluting industries at the expense of America's lungs.

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