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EPA refuses to reduce particulate pollution, linked by scientists to coronavirus deaths | Environment

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In April, as coronavirus cases multiplied across the country, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected scientists’ advice to tighten air pollution standards for particulate matter, or soot.

In the next few weeks, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler likely will reaffirm that decision with a final ruling, despite emerging evidence that links particulate pollution to COVID-19 deaths.

There was enough evidence to support a stricter standard before the pandemic, said Christopher Frey, an environmental engineering professor at North Carolina State University who studies air pollution. The added threat from the coronavirus is like “icing on the cake.”

Particulate matter kills people. “It is responsible for more deaths and sickness than any other air pollutant in the world,” said Gretchen Goldman, a research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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Wheeler’s decision was specifically about fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, microscopic solid and liquid droplets less than one-thirtieth the width of a human hair. The pollution comes from cars, power plants, wildfires and anything that burns fossil fuels. It causes health complications that can lead people to die earlier than they would have, and it is linked to conditions such as COPD, asthma and diabetes.

Frey was part of a 26-member scientific panel that advised the EPA on particulate pollution until Wheeler disbanded the group in 2018. Twenty of the former members continued to review the science and provided unofficial advice to Wheeler as part of the public comment process. Their letter told Wheeler— a former coal lobbyist — that tightening the standard would avoid tens of thousands of premature deaths per year.

Firing the advisory panel and opting not to pursue a more stringent particulate standard were in keeping with the administration of President Donald Trump’s dim view of environmental regulation. By one tally compiled by The New York Times, 72 regulations on air, water and soil pollution, climate change and ecosystems have been canceled or weakened, with an additional 27 in progress. EPA leadership has sidelined or ignored research by agency scientists, and career staff are censoring their reports to avoid terms like “climate change” out of fear of repercussions from political staff.

The EPA has an “apparatus of particulate matter science denial” that rivals its attacks on climate science, Frey said. “If I wanted to get rid of [regulations on] particulate matter, I would do all the things Wheeler is doing.”

Wheeler made his decision “after carefully reviewing [the] scientific evidence and consulting with the agency’s independent science advisors,” an EPA spokesperson said in a statement. “The U.S. now has some of the lowest fine particulate matter levels in the world, five times below the global average, seven times below Chinese levels, and 20 percent lower than France, Germany and Great Britain.”

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