This story was co-published with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.
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,” he said, and should compel Wheeler to adopt an even more stringent limit.
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.
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. When people take a breath, the particles can lodge deep into their lungs and even enter the bloodstream. The pollutant 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. Many of the changes involve narrowing the scope of science, and scientists, that contribute to policy, experts said.
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.”
These standards are set “based on protection of human health,” not how the levels compare to elsewhere, Michael Brauer, a public health professor at the University of British Columbia, said in an email. There are “ample studies” demonstrating health effects when particulate pollution is at levels “well below” the current standard, he said.
The National Association of Manufacturers did not return requests for comment. Jim Harris, a spokesman who represents many petrochemical facilities in Louisiana, pointed to written comments from a coalition of industry groups including the National Mining Association, American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“The evidence indicates that the current suite of [particulate matter standards] protects public health, including the health of at-risk populations, with an adequate margin of safety,” they wrote to the EPA after Wheeler proposed keeping the regulation unchanged in April. More stringent standards “cannot be justified, given the substantial uncertainties in, and limitations of, the scientific evidence.”
Complying with a new standard could cost the manufacturing sector nearly $20 billion and complicate the permitting process for business expansions, they wrote, citing an analysis from the American Forest & Paper Association (ProPublica asked for the report but didn’t get a response before deadline). These proposed projects “create jobs and bring much needed tax revenue to local communities now in critical need of economic development,” they wrote.
Wheeler’s decision could delay stronger regulation for years. The Clean Air Act dictates a meticulous process for considering a new standard; each review usually takes at least five years, Goldman said. Once the EPA adopts a new rule, states have several years to adjust. If Trump loses the election and a Joe Biden administration restarts the particulate review process right away, “we’re really looking at a decade before people are incentivized to reduce particulate pollution,” she said.
Ignoring Evidence, Pausing Enforcement Amid a Pandemic
While scientists have yet to prove that exposure to air pollution increases the risks of dying from COVID-19, a mounting body of research suggests a link. Researchers in the U.K. and Italy have found correlations between high COVID-19 mortality rates and elevated pollution levels. A study conducted by the State University of New York and ProPublica found an association between COVID-19 mortality, particulate pollution from diesel engines and hazardous air pollutants — a class of chemicals that can cause cancer. Hazardous air pollutants are often found attached to particulate matter.
The comments from the industry coalition against strengthening the regulation emphasized the “preliminary” and “evolving” nature of research on air pollution and the coronavirus. If relevant peer-reviewed science becomes available, they said, “EPA could consider them during the next PM [standards] review.”
Emerging evidence should be enough, said Mychal Johnson, co-founder of South Bronx Unite, a community organizing group in the Mott Haven neighborhood. Of all of the roughly 3,100 counties in the country, the Bronx had the highest combination of COVID-19 mortality rates and air pollution levels, according to the SUNY-ProPublica study. Johnson said the pandemic has “pulled back the scab” on the environmental harm in his neighborhood, which has high rates of asthma.
Mott Haven is flanked by two interstate highways. Asphalt playgrounds sit next to those highways, close to the pollution coming out of tailpipes. For decades, policymakers have permitted industrial sites in the area, including waste transfer stations, a FreshDirect warehouse and two natural gas “peaker” plants that generate electricity when there’s high energy demand.
Sometimes the pollution is “so thick you feel it in your lungs and your throat,” Johnson said. “You can’t really describe the smell, it just stinks.”
The community was disproportionately vulnerable when the pandemic hit, both because of the number of people who had preexisting health conditions and the number who worked front-line jobs that put their lives at risk, he said. If the EPA isn’t “moving forward to make sure our policies are strong, to save lives, then we’re definitely moving back[ward].”
It’s too early for conclusive evidence on the coronavirus and particulate matter, said Brauer, the University of British Columbia professor. Even the official death count from COVID-19 remains preliminary, he said. There is, however, plenty of evidence from other respiratory illnesses showing that “if you’re exposed to an infection and at the same time exposed to pollution, that infection is more likely to become severe.”
There is also growing consensus that factors like air pollution contribute to health disparities in poor and minority communities, and those who are disproportionately affected are more vulnerable to COVID-19, he said.
Wheeler doesn’t need definitive proof, said Bernard Goldstein, a professor emeritus of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh. The law allows Wheeler to consider a “margin of safety” that acknowledges ongoing research, Goldstein said. “You have two different things that violently attack the same organs” in the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, he added. From a margin of safety perspective, it’s enough to say “I’ve got data showing the dam is about to break.”
Far from acknowledging the pandemic as an added threat, Wheeler has used it to loosen reporting requirements for coal plants and other polluters. The temporary policy, announced on March 26, said the EPA would not penalize businesses that failed to monitor or report pollution, as long as they were “making good faith efforts to comply with their obligations during this difficult time.”
Nine state attorneys general sued the EPA in response. They dropped the lawsuit after the EPA ended the practice Aug. 31.
The policy has already had deadly consequences, said Claudia Persico, an assistant professor with American University’s Department of Public Administration and Policy in Washington, D.C. An analysis by Persico and Kathryn Johnson, a doctoral student, found that the EPA’s coronavirus policy led to a 14% increase in particulate matter emissions in roughly 700 counties with major polluters, and that change is “associated with” more than 7,300 additional deaths from COVID-19 from March 26 to July 11. The paper is undergoing peer review. Two other experts who read the study told the news publication Grist that the paper’s methodology is sound.
Persico and Johnson’s research controlled for the effects of pandemic shutdowns that temporarily drove down emissions in many counties. Their estimate of 7,300 deaths only accounts for the counties where the first COVID-19 deaths occurred after March 26, leaving out major metropolitan areas like New York City and Chicago, Persico said.
“Because we allowed this rollback, more people died,” she said. “And that’s a pretty serious thing.”
The EPA says the practice did not permit any additional release of pollutants. “There is no support in the [Persico and Johnson] paper for their allegation that ‘policy-induced increases in pollution’ occurred,” the agency said in a statement.
The spokesperson pointed to a peer-reviewed study led by the University of Minnesota that “reported declines in air pollution during the COVID-19 pandemic.” But that paper only captured what happened in the initial shutdowns, from March 13 through April 21, when many nonessential businesses closed and commuter traffic plummeted; particulate pollution dropped 11% in 63 counties that adopted early business shutdowns.
There was also a marginal increase in particulate matter in 59 other counties without early shutdowns, but the findings were not conclusive. The study didn’t include data from after April, when pollution may have rebounded as businesses reopened, said one of its authors, Jesse Berman, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. The study doesn’t prove or disprove whether the EPA’s lack of enforcement increased pollution. “It just wasn’t designed to do that,” Berman said.
Cementing a “Full-Frontal Assault” on Science
The particulate pollution decision shows how the Trump administration has rewritten the rules on how independent science affects regulation, Goldman said.
The latest particulate pollution review kicked off during President Barack Obama’s second term. In 2018, EPA staff scientists published an exhaustive, 1,881-page summary of the science. The report found strong evidence that particulate matter can kill people through its effects on the cardiovascular system. Even short-term exposure may be deadly, it said. Additional evidence showed how it can damage children’s lungs and exacerbate asthma.
Under normal circumstances, that report would have gone to a review panel of more than 20 outside scientists, including Frey. The panel included epidemiologists, physicians, biostatisticians and other experts who specialize in particulate pollution. The members work with the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, or CASAC, a seven-member team that helps Wheeler determine the final standard.
But Wheeler dismissed the review panel a few days before it could weigh in on the EPA report. He and his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, also replaced most of the independent scientists on CASAC. It once had a plurality of doctors, biostatisticians and epidemiologists, and it is now dominated by state regulators from Republican states and led by a consultant with close ties to industry. None of them are experts in epidemiology — the study of how diseases affect populations, a linchpin of particulate matter research.
“All of the current members hold Ph.D.s in fields that include health sciences, toxicology, ecology, chemical engineering and risk analysis,” and the majority of CASAC members recommended maintaining the current standard, the EPA spokesperson said. Wheeler has considered the committee’s advice “but is also reviewing additional input provided during the public comment period,” the statement added.
The EPA has turned the entire process into “a sham,” said Lianne Sheppard, a professor of biostatistics and environmental health at the University of Washington. Sheppard served on CASAC from 2015 to 2018 and was a member of the now-dismantled particulate panel. The large panel existed because the science is so vast and complex that “no seven people, no matter how expert they are,” can review the information on their own, Sheppard said.
Goldman said the EPA under Trump has always sought to undermine the science, as particulate matter involves “super inconvenient” math that complicates deregulation efforts.
Many environmental rules involve a cost-benefit analysis. On one side of the ledger is the price of forcing industry to comply with a new rule; on the other, money saved from avoiding pollution-related deaths and illnesses. A good cost-benefit ratio can do wonders for selling the rule to the public. Often, the strategies used to reduce one air pollutant also cut down on other pollutants like particulate matter. Those ancillary gains count as a “co-benefits.”
Since particulate pollution kills so many people, even a small reduction can tip the scales in favor of regulation, Goldman said.
When the Obama administration moved to regulate mercury from power plants, for instance, the savings from reducing mercury, a poison that damages children’s brains, came to just $6 million. The co-benefits from slashing particulates — a byproduct of those efforts — added up to billions.
Wheeler’s EPA watered down the mercury regulation in April by disregarding the co-benefits from reducing particulate matter. Frey and other experts feared it would set a precedent. Indeed, within weeks, the EPA introduced a new regulation to codify the practice. It proposed that key air pollution rules would report co-benefits separately. Frey said it opens the door for “cherry-picking” what goes into the economic analysis.
“As soon as you start saying, ‘We’re going to look at this thing but not these things,’ that’s not benefit-cost anymore. That’s just a game,” he said.
The agency is now reviewing public comments on the rule.
In another move, the EPA plans to finalize a “Transparency Rule” that could force agency scientists to prioritize studies where researchers have made all of the raw data publicly available. That’s simply not possible for many health studies, where doing so would reveal private medical data, Goldman said, and it ignores how these studies have already been vetted through the peer-review process. Scientists “cannot legally, ethically provide” such data, she added. “Everyone in the scientific community and their brother [has] said this is a terrible idea.”
The rule could dismiss key epidemiology studies on the dangers of particulate matter, especially those that show why the current standard is inadequate, Goldman said.
Epidemiology is a complicated discipline that requires careful analysis and statistics. When researching air pollution, epidemiologists might study whether residents in neighborhoods with high levels of particulate matter are in worse health than those in areas with less pollution. They would need to control for other factors, such as income, to make sure the health effects they’re seeing truly come from particulate matter.
Over decades, epidemiology has provided “this giant statistical power” that shows how harmful particulate matter can be, and the findings have been repeated in different cities, on different groups of people, with varying levels of pollution, Goldman said.
EPA’s attempt to disqualify these studies is a “full-frontal assault on epidemiology,” Frey said. “This administration is just taking tools out of the toolbox and scooping things out.”
Three weeks ago, the agency finalized another rule allowing certain polluters to follow weaker air emissions standards. Wheeler has said the environmental rollbacks will continue if Trump is reelected.