Disbanded Air Pollution Panel Finds EPA Standards Don’t Protect Public Health
By Gretchen Goldman
The Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel has released their consensus recommendations to the EPA administrator on the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter. The group of 20 independent experts, that were disbanded by Administrator Wheeler last October and reconvened last week, hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, has now made clear that the current particulate pollution standards don't protect public health and welfare.
The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) — the remaining seven-person committee that is providing science advice to the EPA on the particulate matter standards — meets this week to discuss their recommendations on whether the current standards are adequate. The letter from the Independent Panel will be the elephant in the room.
The Elephant in the CASAC Meeting
CASAC has already acknowledged that they don't have the expertise to conduct the review but you know who does? The Independent Panel. The Panel has more than double the experts of CASAC, and importantly, it has multiple experts in each of the necessary scientific disciplines critical to ensure a comprehensive, robust review of the science supporting the standards.
As a result, we should watch whether or not CASAC aligns with the panel in their recommendations on the standards. If CASAC doesn't decide this week to make a similar recommendation as the Independent Panel, they'll have to explain why they disagreed with a larger, more experienced, and more diverse set of experts on the topic. In any event, the administrator will have access to both CASAC and the Independent Panel's recommendations when he ultimately makes the decision of where to set particulate pollution standards. The panel's recommendations should hold the administrator's feet to the fire.
The Fine Particulate Matter Standards Don’t Protect Public Health
The standards of greatest interest are the primary PM2.5 standards. These are the standards for particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers (fine particulate matter) that are designed to protect public health. The panel supported the preliminary conclusions of a Draft EPA Policy Assessment that the current standards aren't requisite to protect public health.
The letter cited new and consistent epidemiological findings, supported by human and animal studies and other studies with natural experiments, as providing "clear and compelling scientific evidence" for tighter standards. Since the last particulate matter review, several new large-scale epidemiological studies provide powerful evidence that particulate matter is causing adverse health outcomes (such as early death, heart attacks, and respiratory stress) at locations and during time periods with concentrations at or below the level of the current standards.
They write, "New and compelling evidence that health effects are occurring in areas that already meet or are well below the current standards." Notably, this evidence cuts across different locations with different study populations, different study designs, and different statistical approaches.
Given the weight of the evidence from new studies across scientific disciplines and consistent with the decision-making process that EPA and its science advisers have used for many years, the panel recommends a particulate matter standard between 8 µg/m3 and 10 µg/m3 for the annual PM2.5 standard (compared to the current standard of 12 µg/m3) and between 25 µg/m3 and 30 µg/m3 for the 24-hour standard (compared to the current standard of 35 µg/m3) to protect public health. These ranges are tighter than those recommended in EPA's Draft Policy Assessment.
Keeping the Current Fine Particulate Matter Standards Ignores the Science
The Independent Panel rejected a potential argument for maintaining the current primary PM2.5 standards. The Draft Policy Assessment offered up an alternative rationale that might be used if the agency were to reject the draft assessment's recommendation to strengthen the standards and maintain the current standards. This alternative rationale explains that such a move would require the administrator to be arbitrarily selective in choosing which new studies to accept and which to toss and to disregard new epidemiologic evidence showing effects at lower levels.
The panel roundly rejected this justification, noting that, "Arguments offered in the draft Policy Assessment for retaining the current standards are not scientifically justified and are specious." This is important because if the administrator fails to strengthen the standards, he'll have to explain (both in court and in the court of public opinion) why he feels such a decision is science-based, as required under the Clean Air Act. And one proposed argument he could use has just been debunked by this expert Panel.
Otherwise, the EPA’s Draft Policy Assessment Is Scientifically Sound
While the Independent Panel critiqued some details of the EPA's Draft Policy Assessment, the panel agreed that the draft science and policy assessments were cohesive and robust and the panel commended the "good faith effort" involved in the policy assessment. Specifically, the panel affirmed the use of EPA's causality framework used in the Integrated Science Assessment they reviewed last year and the Policy Assessment's new use of a hybrid modeling technique that allows for better assessment of risk from particulate matter exposure across the country especially in rural areas.
This diverges from what the seven-member CASAC has said and done around the EPA's assessment of the science and policy. In December, they concluded that the agency's draft science assessment was not a scientific document (it is) and CASAC Chair Dr. Tony Cox has been critical of the agency's causality framework that has been developed with dozens of experts over more than a decade. This view is not shared by the scientific community, and now, not shared by the Independent Panel either.
Other Particulate Pollution Standards Also May Need Revamping
The Independent Panel decided other particulate standards were also inadequate. On PM10, particulate matter less than 10 micrometers, the panel recommended revising this standard downward given that the PM2.5 component would also be tightened and noted several research and monitoring areas that need further work. On the secondary standards, i.e. the standards designed to protect welfare effects, such as visibility, the panel concluded that the standards should be tightened in order to be more protective.
The Panel Condemns the EPA’s Broken Process
The Independent Panel's deliberations, demands for further research, and unanswered questions highlight how broken the EPA process is. In a normal review cycle, the panel would have had the opportunity to talk with agency scientists directly. The EPA staff would then have considered their comments and revised the Integrated Science Assessment in response to the committee and panel's suggestions. But because the administrator disbanded the panel and abbreviated the process, there was no opportunity for such dialogue and refinement of the agency's science assessment before policy decisions were discussed. But alas, the panel had to make do with what was available to them and CASAC does too.
Fortunately for CASAC, an Independent Panel has already done their job, and they are free (and encouraged) to run with it, especially given the long list of ways that EPA Administrator Wheeler has damaged the ambient air pollution review process.
Listen and watch this week as CASAC discusses the same questions that the Independent Panel did last week. If CASAC comes to different conclusions than the larger, more experienced, and more diverse Independent Panel, we should ask why.
You can raise these questions yourself and demand that the administrator follow the panel's recommendations, by providing written or oral public comments at a future CASAC meeting and commenting on the docket for the particulate matter rule-making. I'll be providing public comments this afternoon urging CASAC to follow the advice of the Independent Panel and commenting on the EPA's problematic process and drawing attention to that elephant in the room.
Gretchen Goldman is the research director at the Center for Science and Democracy.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Union of Concerned Scientists.
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The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.
"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."
The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.
They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.
They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.
But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.
"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.
What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.
It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.
To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.
First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.
Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.
University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.
"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."
Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.
"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.
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